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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.