There was a strange dynamic in the House of Commons chamber yesterday afternoon. A prime minister, who has consistently called himself a Eurosceptic, doing the hard sell on British membership of the European Union. Flanked by a recent pro-European convert, Theresa May, and the earliest ‘outer’ in his Cabinet, Chris Grayling, who deliberately left enough space on the green benches to avoid being on the evening news. With the Conservative party split down the middle, predictably there was more support for Europe on the opposition benches than on the government side.
Labour members of parliament know, to our cost, that David Cameron is a good salesman. He was not just selling the deal that he secured last week at the latest English lunch in living memory. He was giving a full-throated account of the benefits of membership. No holds barred. This marked a big shift since his last statement to parliament on Europe. He looked relieved to be making the case without all the usual caveats.
After explaining his reform package, Cameron launched into the strongest passage of his speech. In a direct rebuke to Boris Johnson, he stressed that ‘having a second renegotiation followed by a second referendum was not on the ballot paper’. In the event of a leave vote, ignoring the express will of the British people would be ‘undemocratic’. He entertainingly compared this approach to a couple seeking a divorce in order to renew their wedding vows.
In his closing remarks, he said that doing ‘what is best for our country’ was his sole motivation because he is not standing for re-election. The implication that Boris was putting his leadership ambitions before the national interest was obvious. Chris Leslie pointed out that Boris’s decision had caused the pound to slide to its lowest level for seven years. Ironically, the Mayor of London maintained that leaving the EU would not disadvantage British business on the same day that his own position provoked a dramatically negative effect on the value of our currency.
The prime minister was at pains to explain the economic and security risks of leaving the EU. However, as Pat McFadden reminded him, he was guilty of putting his party interest above the national interest. He should reflect on the wisdom of his decision to bring about the uncertainties of a referendum and the potentially grave consequences of leaving the EU.
It is uncomfortable for Labour MPs to agree with a Conservative prime minister, but on this existential issue, we know that there are much bigger issues at stake than party politics. We are aware that rubbishing Cameron’s deal is not only pointless but could prove counterproductive. Alan Johnson and the Labour In For Britain campaign are keen to move on to make the bigger arguments about membership, but the deal has fired the starting gun for the campaign.
The deal makes progress in a number of controversial areas. Many working class communities in Labour seats are concerned about immigration. Many Labour voters recognise that migrants from Eastern Europe come here to work but they want to see a fair system in which people contribute before they are given benefits. As such, the emergency brake does have some merit. In a good natured exchange, Ed Miliband thanked the Prime Minster for implementing parts of the Labour manifesto, notably the red card for national parliaments and a minimum period during which migrants should contribute.
The dynamics of the parliamentary debate are unlikely to determine the overall outcome of the referendum. Whilst it is entertaining to witness the deep and bitter divisions in Tory ranks, Labour MPs and members must focus on making the bigger, positive case for staying in Europe. We have a responsibility to convince voters and ultimately get them out to vote on 23 June. The future prospects of generations to come depend on it.
Emma Reynolds MP is member of parliament for Wolverhampton North East
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