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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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