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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.