The uncertainty over Britain's EU membership is damaging growth

Conservative MP Robert Buckland says it is time for the UK to engage with the EU constructively.

For some politicos, the debate about the European Union (EU) seems to be a matter of abstract theories and dusty deliberation. For me, as a MP representing an area whose daily business often is within the EU, the reality is somewhat different. I hear from my constituents and local businesses about the problems and opportunities they are facing with their jobs, their household finances, their business prospects and our local economy. Swindon is an outward looking town with a diverse industrial base. For Swindon, read Britain.

We are an attractive country to invest in because we act as an outward-looking springboard into the rest of Europe. In discussions I have held with local businesses, both big and small, it is clear that even if certain regulations here and there from Brussels are inconvenient, the benefits of our access to the single market cannot be overestimated. Sadly, the uncertainty being caused by those flirting with withdrawal from the EU is having a measurable and negative impact. Nature abhors a vacuum: businesses are hedging their bets and not investing in case of an abrupt withdrawal from the EU and corresponding loss of access to the vast European market.

I understand the desire for a more trade-focused European Union. That is why I support the European Commission’s drive to sign new EU Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), such as the EU-South Korea FTA enacted in 2011. This is estimated to be worth £0.5bn to the UK economy, a remarkable figure. Notably, American efforts to sign a similar FTA with the South Koreans have faltered. Efforts by the EU are also underway to sign FTAs with Singapore, Japan and the USA. As the world has globalised, it has become clear that we cannot stand alone. We live in an age of regional power blocs and if we left the EU we would struggle to get a good deal-or even a deal at all-from vibrant countries like South Korea. This is without even mentioning the failure of the World Trade Organisation Doha trade talks, which means that other avenues must be considered.

There are some who have suggested that withdrawal would be the panacea to our current problems. There is no denying that the Eurozone crisis has had a negative impact on our national economy. However, we cannot avoid the impact of the Eurozone crisis by leaving the EU. We are embroiled in the fortunes of the continent and we are best placed inside the tent rather than waiting outside. I would also venture that the Eurozone crisis will also eventually end; it seems really quite reckless to disrupt our relationship with Europe when they are our largest trading partner, receiving 40 per cent of our exports, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The reality is that we take the long view and remain engaged.

It is a shame that we have seemingly forgotten the pivotal role we have historically played in Europe. Britain has been involved in the affairs of our continental friends for many centuries, from the Congress of Vienna to the Maastricht Treaty. The values of the European Union are inherently British: freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality and the respect for human rights. The single market, one aspect of the EU that even most Euro sceptics support, would not have been created without our influence. I am reminded of the words by John Donne’s words: “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”. The EU is better as a result of our presence, and we are better as a result of the EU. To put it bluntly, the EU constitutes the world’s largest market and our natural allies in an increasingly globalised, complex world.

Finally, I should note that I recognise a number of problems with our current membership of the EU. There are too many unnecessary regulations, excessive interference from Brussels and ‘gold-plating’ of regulations by Whitehall. I would like to see measurable steps to effect a change in these matters; however, this change will not be achieved by flirting with withdrawal. It is time for us to engage with the EU constructively, help them through this crisis and thereby shape its future in our own interests.

David Cameron gives a press conference after an EU summit last October. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon and chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.