The BCC wants an EU referendum a year earlier than the PM does. Photo: Getty
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The British Chambers of Commerce calls on government to bring forward the EU referendum to 2016

The director general of the BCC is urging politicians to call an EU referendum next year.

In the past week, political debate has been focused on business. Labour has been accused of being anti-enterprise as big business bosses have voiced their concerns about having Ed Miliband in No 10.

And as the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), a body that represents 92,000 businesses across Britain, holds its annual conference today, it seems to be landing another blow for Labour regarding business.

Its director general, John Longworth, will use his speech to the conference to argue for bringing the Tories' promised 2017 EU referendum forward to next year.

He will voice his concern that the EU membership debate has been "hijacked by political ideology", and told the BBC's Today programme this morning: 

We need to bring the referendum date forward because two-and-a half-years of uncertainty isn't good for growth and investment.

His argument is that a long period of uncertainty on the issue is damaging, so the sooner the country can vote in a referendum, the better. Longworth will voice his support for David Cameron's plan to thrash out a new deal for our relationship with the EU:

Chamber members fundamentally support the prime minister’s objective of Britain in a reformed Europe. The next government must set out what it will do to protect the United Kingdom against the prospect of being in a club where all the decisions are made by, and for, the Eurozone.

Longworth's comments spell bad news for Labour, as he is undermining the party's stance against calling an EU referendum altogether:

If Labour forms an administration the uncertainty would not be diminished, they would be under huge pressure to have a referendum . . . business people would always be mindful of the possibility that there could be a referendum at some time.

Although it's clear Longworth's motive is for Britain to remain in the EU, and to settle the issue as soon as possible, this has clearly failed to translate into support for Labour, the only main Westminster party that has not promised a referendum. This is in contrast to the message of last year's CBI conference in November, when its president Mike Rake told British business that the UK's EU membership is key to Britain's success:

Do not be fooled: by withdrawing from Europe we do not somehow become more open to trade elsewhere; instead we turn inwards, going against the grain of an increasingly connected world.

As well as making life difficult for Labour, which was treating its unique stance on the EU as its main trump card with business ahead of the election, it is also an awkward intervention for the Prime Minister.

David Cameron throughout this parliament has been under immense pressure from Tory backbenchers, particularly eurosceptics and those spooked by Ukip's popularity, to bring an EU referendum forward. There was a contingent of MPs who called for the referendum to be held in 2014, who felt the prospect of a 2017 vote (depending on a Tory win) was a cop-out from the PM. Now that a business case has been made for bringing it forward, such politicians will feel emboldened.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.