Jacob Rees-Mogg on a National Referendum on the European Union

24th October, 2011, House of Commons

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): It is amazing how united the Conservative party has been so far today. We had a Eurosceptic statement from the Prime Minister and then a Eurosceptic speech from the Foreign Secretary, so it can only be the Liberal Democrats who are inveigling us down the path of unrighteousness and taking us away from supporting the motion. The Foreign Secretary made six points that must have been written for him by the Liberal Democrats, because he is far too clever a man to have thought of them for himself, because they do not really add up. I shall go through them.

The Foreign Secretary made two points that were essentially trivial—too trivial for a man of his standing. They were, first, that there was no manifesto commitment for a referendum. However, manifestos can deal only with what is known at the time; they cannot deal with things that have not yet arisen. The crisis in the eurozone and the changes that could come from it were not known with clarity at that point, so it is now right to think beyond the manifesto to what the next steps are. That point can therefore be discarded.

The Foreign Secretary then said that we had passed an Act of Parliament to deal with when we could have referendums, and so we did; but again, this House knows many things, but it is not omniscient. It cannot take care of every occasion that may arise when a referendum may be a good idea or every occasion when the British people—whom we should trust—may want one. So, those two points go.

The other two points that do not add up to much were, first, that a three-way referendum is confusing. However, that is not a problem because the motion calls for a Bill in the next Session, which can deal with any confusion. We can, in our wisdom, work out how to phrase a referendum—or series of referendums, if necessary —that will be understandable.

Martin Horwood: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and we always enjoy his speeches, but will he clear up some confusion about the proposed three-way referendum? Will it use the alternative vote system or first past the post? The motion is not entirely clear.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an extra minute—it is kind of Gloucestershire to give something to Somerset for once. That issue can be dealt with in the legislation. Indeed, we could two referendums. As it happens, it might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed.

The fourth point that did not work was that the EU was all or nothing. However, it is already not all or nothing: we already have opt-outs and so forth. There are therefore two remaining points—as those who are good mathematicians will have worked out—that we need to look at. One was that we are dealing with this issue in a crisis and this is therefore the wrong time: “When a man’s house is burning down, you send in the fire brigade.” Quite right. But then, when he wants to hire someone else’s house nearby to find fresh accommodation, they can set the terms of the tenancy. That is the position that we are in with the European Union—a very strong negotiating position, which we should maximise.

We should also note that we cannot solve our financial crisis until we have freed ourselves from the yoke of European regulation. Only this weekend, we have seen that Tesco is going to take on fewer part-time people because of a directive from Brussels. Are we really going to deny our citizens growth because Brussels wants to put a further yoke on them?

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that one of Tesco’s most profitable areas is the part of eastern Europe that is in the European Union?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Tesco, great company that it is, is also very popular in Thailand, whose application for membership of the European Union I am currently unaware of.

The Foreign Secretary made a final point that we would lose opportunities by going for a referendum now. Well, of course we would not; we would gain them. We are negotiating on the budget for the next few years on the basis of an absolute majority and a one-vote veto. This is not the intermediate budget. Our position is quite strong.

As I see it, we have a wonderfully united Conservative party, upset by the Liberal Democrats. I admire the Liberal Democrats. They are good, honest people, but, when push comes to shove, getting a proper relationship with the European Union is more important than the coalition. If the Liberal Democrats want to go into a general election saying, “Let’s have more rules from Brussels and from Mr Barroso”, let them try it. We shall see how many seats they win on that basis. It is for us Back Benchers to say to Her Majesty’s Government: “Stiffen your sinews, summon up the blood and imitate the action of a tiger, for that is how you should behave towards our European partners, not like Bagpuss.”

Hon. Members: Hurrah!