No wonder politics has a bad name. This week all three main parties whipped their MPs to stop a referendum on EU matters which many in the public want.
In an attempt to make politics closer to people this government launched two excellent innovations. It allowed backbench MPs to choose the business on certain Parliamentary days. This allows us to discuss the things that government and Opposition may have missed or do not wish to talk about. It allowed members of the public to petition to have a topic debated. If more than 100,000 want a given subject the government hoped the Backbench Business Committee would oblige by allowing it to be debated on one of our days.
It was not long before well over 100,000 people had signed up for a debate on an EU referendum on one petition or another. David Nuttall MP duly put the idea to the Backbench business committee that a debate should be held to propose a people’s referendum. Many Conservative MPs were enthusiastic. The debate was granted. Then the leaderships of the three big parties decided they could not tolerate so much democracy after all. Out came the heavy handed three line whips.
Labour’s use of it was at least consistent with their refusal to hold a referendum when in office. It was nonetheless surprising to see the main Opposition party come to the aid of the Prime Minister and Coalition government, who could have been defeated if Labour had all voted with Conservative proponents of a referendum. On this occasion Labour declined to do the popular thing.
The Lib Dems did yet another of their legendary U turns. They offered an In/Out referendum on the EU as their proposal when the Treaty of Lisbon was going through. This week, when they had the opportunity to vote for such a referendum – with a third option added in- they did not take their chance to do as they promised. Nor did they seek to amend the motion, as they could have done, to bring it exactly into line with their pledge. Instead, they tore up their pledge. They opposed all referenda.
The Conservative Leadership had offered a referendum on the Lisbon treaty before it was brought in. Conservative MPs voted for such a referendum on a three line whip to vote for it in the last Parliament. We were defeated by Lib Dem and Labour MPs outvoting us. The Conservatives fought the last election on a Manifesto which did not offer a referendum, but did offer renegotiation to get powers back from the EU. The backbench motion covered just this option by inviting people to vote on renegotiation as well as on In/Out. Despite this, the leadership decided that did not want to trust the people on this occasion on this issue.
I have received many emails and messages asking me to vote for the motion, which I duly did. I do want Parliament to listen more to the public view. There is great unease about the extent to which our laws are made in Brussels, often without our consent, and the way we are being dragged into the Euro crisis. If you want to know more about how that is all panning out, take a look at www.johnredwood.com where I try to keep you informed. Some day the public do have to be asked for their view. The EU today is a very different body from the EEC which older voters approved in 1975.