HC Deb 11 July 2000 vol 353 cc714-6 4.13 pm
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a referendum on 28th September 2000 to decide whether the United Kingdom should join the European Single Currency. It has become commonplace to say that this is the most important political issue that our generation will have to decide, but it is. I have been a firm opponent of Britain joining the European single currency for a long time, but I raise the issue today because I believe that there is significant confusion at the top of the Government which makes an early decision on the issue vital if Britain's interests are to be pursued. I also believe that in this debate the argument should be conducted honestly and openly, not by the chicanery, scaremongering and leaks that we have seen in the past few weeks.

The events of the past few weeks have added confusion to uncertainly. It looks as if there is a conspiracy, involving at least four senior Ministers, to speed Britain's entry into the European single currency. Three Cabinet Ministers and another senior Minister have been sounding the drum for early entry. They have been spreading scare stories in the press and leaking internal documents from their Departments. They arrogantly lecture the rest of us on what is good for business, but would any of us take business advice from them? Apart from the fact that one of them spent a few years working for the late Robert Maxwell—one of the great crooks of the 20th century—they have never between them made a single investment, created a single job or run a single business.

A few weeks ago in the debate on European affairs, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor humiliated the Foreign Secretary by forcing him not to deliver some of the warm remarks about the euro that were contained in the written text of his speech, which, unfortunately for him, had already been released to the press. Afterwards, the Chancellor made sure that those transactions were leaked, to the further embarrassment of the Foreign Secretary. Last Friday, the Foreign Secretary said that joining the euro was inevitable. Within hours, he had been disowned by the Prime Minister's spokesman—again apparently at the Chancellor's request.

Now we come to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—there is a name that the business community conjures with. He is a real expert on European business and a man who understands the intricacies of the minds of German industrialists. A brief phone call to BMW and he has all the facts at his fingertips. What about the Chancellor? He has defended his turf aggressively and his position seems to be, "How dare anybody else have something to say about this issue?" His legendary bad temper seems to have got the better of him and it seems that Leo is not the only baby in Downing street to throw his toys out of his pram. His reward is to be rubbished in the press.

Some weeks ago, a colleague of the Chancellor told us anonymously that he is psychologically flawed. Now, according to other Ministers and again anonymously, we are told that he is either bonkers or power crazed, although I suppose that it is possible to be both. This must be a unique example of a campaign to undermine the authority of a Chancellor of the Exchequer that is apparently sanctioned by the Prime Minister. Where, one asks oneself, has the Prime Minister been in all this? Giving a lead? Not this Prime Minister. He wants to climb, but is frightened to fall. He wants to join, but is terrified of public opinion. He will not bow to public opinion nor lead it, so he seeks to manipulate it.

On the most important issue facing this country, the Prime Minister is paralysed by weakness. That would be funny if we were discussing dragging hooligans off to cashpoints, but the Government's indecision is seriously damaging Britain's position in the European Union. If we eventually decide not to join the euro, we will not be at the heart of Europe. However, I believe that we can construct a more flexible relationship in which Britain can flourish and all the recent talk about manufacturing meltdown and the drying up of foreign investment will be seen for the nonsense that it is. If we decide to join the euro, perhaps we can be at the heart of the EU and perhaps we can influence its policy and future direction in Britain's interest. At the moment, we can do neither.

In a speech on this subject nearly three years ago, the Chancellor set out five tests. Four are so unspecific that they could be answered either way at any time. No doubt that is what he intended. I suggest that over the next two years or so we are unlikely to learn anything more or any further facts that will help us to evaluate whether those tests have been met. Four—on flexibility, investment, employment and the City—can be answered only by joining the euro and seeing what happens. However, we know that being out of the euro for the past 18 months has done us no harm in any of those areas. In fact, in all four we have by far the best record in the EU.

The Chancellor's first—and, I think, main—criterion was that he wanted to see convergence. That is sensible, but he will not find out about convergence in 18 months or two years. I could have understood him saying that he wanted to wait for a whole economic cycle as wanting to see how the single currency works in bad times as well as in good represents a sensible position. What would happen in a recession? After all, a recession destroyed the exchange rate mechanism. We have seen some convergence on inflation and interest rates and even on growth, but there is little or none on economic cycles, or even evidence of it.

There are not five tests, four, three or even two. Like many of my hon. and right hon. Friends, I believe that the Prime Minister has only one test: when can he get away with conning the British public into agreeing to join a single currency? That argument has been going on for well over a decade, one way and another. Members of Parliament, newspaper editors, economists and other commentators all made up their minds long ago, did they not? I believe that we all did and that nothing that happens in the next two years will make any of us change our views.

Under this Government, and with the present confusion and uncertainty, the decision can be made only in a referendum. My Bill calls for that referendum to take place on 28 September—the date on which the Danish Government have invited Danish voters to decide whether they want to join. If that is good enough for them, it is good enough for us. However, I acknowledge what one or two of my hon. Friends have said: it would take time to put proper campaigns together, so in due course I should be happy to accept an amendment to allow a referendum to take place a few weeks later. However, it ought to be held before the end of the year.

I have for a long time believed that the euro is bad economics and bad politics. It is like the exchange rate mechanism without an exit door. In any referendum I will campaign vigorously for a no vote. I believe that the time for a referendum has now come. What the business community wants is not a commitment to join, but a decision one way or the other. It needs to know so that it can plan. The Government's position makes that impossible.

Let both sides take their case to the voters. Let us have a proper, full and open argument with the advantages and disadvantages honestly debated. I hope passionately that the answer will be no, and that we can build with the European Union a constructive and flexible relationship of benefit to Britain. If the answer is yes, we will all have to work to ensure that the resulting relationship works to Britain's advantage. A continuation of the current confusion and uncertainty cannot be justified. That confusion bedevils our relationship with the European Union, makes it impossible for business men to plan, and makes the Government look pathetic.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Maples, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Mr. Nicholas Soames, Sir Michael Spicer and Sir Peter Tapsell.