Minister explains why change on Europe is stalled until after the 2015 election.
Following their visit to the Lowford Centre yesterday, The Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP and Conservative MEP candidate Richard Robinson spoke exclusively to Eastleigh News.
I started by asked about a campaign leaflet, currently dropping through local letterboxes, which outlines the Conservatives plans for Europe. The leaflet also states that we need a Conservative Prime Minister and a strong team of Conservative MEP’s to ‘Deliver real change in Europe’.
My question was therefore “We’ve got a Conservative Prime Minister and 27 Conservative MEP’s, so why isn’t the Government getting on with the job of delivering that change now…?
Oliver Letwin then explained;
“Some of it we have been implementing as we go along.
- Cutting the cost of Europe: We have managed to cut back on the European Budget and the Prime Minister has been extraordinarily tough about that. We’ve won that battle so far. We’ve got to keep winning it of course, every time the European budget is set.”
- Making Europe work for business: We are in the middle of negotiating a whole series of changes on directives to try and reduce the regulations that are coming out for business and we are already making some progress on that, although it is slow tough work.
- Keeping out of the single currency: We’re doing.
- Taking back control of Justice & Home Affairs: We’ve taken huge steps to take back control, by getting out of 100 Justice Home & Affairs Directives. We’re now negotiating to go back into a limited set of them, 35 of them that are actually necessary for our own purposes, to make sure capture criminals back from other parts of Europe & so on.
- Keep out of future bailouts: You may remember we were part of the Euro bailout mechanism and the Prime Minister negotiated us out of that, so we have not been participating in the bailouts of Greece & so on.
“But Taking back control of our own borders and Getting change the European Union in a wider sense, i.e. our relationship with the European Union, and Voting in an in-out referendum, for that we need a Conservative Government.”
“We have not been able to agree with our Liberal partners to start re-negotiation with the EU. Unless there is a Conservative Government after the next election, we won’t get the in-out referendum because neither Labour or the Liberals want it. We’ve actually got to elect a Conservative Government to do it.”
“So basically a lot of this we can do and are doing. The bits we can’t do we will do if we get a Conservative Government.”
I sought to clarify that by asking “The fact that we haven’t had an in-out referendum is down to the fact that we’re in a coalition Government”, to which Oliver Letwin replied;
Seeking further clarification, I asked “Are the Lib Dems actively blocking it..?”, to which Oliver Letwin replied.
“Yes. They don’t take the same view. Nor does Labour. So to the extent that we would do this within a couple of years, I mean 2017, of the next Election, to do that we have to have a Conservative Government that is committed to doing it.”
Richard Robinson had joined us by now and added;
“There was actually a Bill in front of the House to set the date for this referendum, in 2017. It failed in the House of Lords, because Labour and the Liberals voted it out. So we’ve actually tried to lock this in…”
Oliver Letwin further added;
“And we will try again. What we are trying to do is get a vote in the House of Commons, to use the Parliament Act , to lock that 2017 date in. But that depends on the Liberals not opposing it, because we haven’t got a Conservative majority in the House of Commons.”
My next question asked about the coalition agreement, and the joint commitment to press the EU to stop moving between Brussels and Strasbourg periodically. I wondered “Has there been any progress on that…?” Oliver Letwin replied;
“No. We have been trying, but we haven’t yet made any progress on that. I have to say that by comparison with renegotiating our relationship to the EU and getting rid of things like the part of the treaty that says we have to go to ever closer union, this is a fairly minor thing. So if I had to trade, I’d go much more for the big things that really affect British business, but it is an irritant, because it is an unnecessary cost.”
Richard Robinson went further [with Letwin nodding agreement] saying;
“Its more than an irritant though, because its symbolic of what’s wrong with the EU.”
“There are two things that people know about the EU. One is the travelling circus between Brussels & Strasbourg. The other is that the accounts haven’t been audited.”
“It seems to me that you’ve got to deal with both of those things, if you want to win the referendum in 2017, because they’re so symbolic of what’s wrong with the system so far.”
“It’s not only in this country that we object to those things. For the first time in the last Parliament, we got a vote through the Parliament saying that it wanted to have only one seat. That hadn’t happened before, so the Parliament is saying to the commission and member states ‘We want to be in one place and not travelling backwards and forwards’. It’s an irritant to them as well.”
“But other countries think this too. France holds out.”
“My view, for what it is worth, is that there’s a deal to be done. Strasbourg economy would lose dramatically by moving it, so you’ve got to do something with the buildings to replace what’s there. There has to be some sort of creative deal done if you want to stop that, but I think that it is important and that it is going to be important if we want to win the referendum in 2017.”
Replying to an enquiry from Richard, about whether he was now ‘off-message’, Oliver Letwin endorsed that by saying;
“You’re right. It’s a symbol of waste and the travelling is an irritant…”
I sought to clarify the Conservation position, that “We have to vote for a Conservative Government in 2015 if we want that referendum…? Oliver Letwin replied;
“Yes. It’s a simple proposition. Obviously, if the other parties change their minds that would be different, but at the moment neither Labour nor the Liberals want it and UKIP can’t deliver it, so if you want to have a Government after the election that is going to deliver a referendum, you need a Conservative Government.”
I then asked about some of the other issues that will be significant in 2015, the NHS, benefits etc. How are the Conservatives going to persuade people on those fronts…? Oliver Letwin replied.
“We set out in 2012 to rescue an economy that was in dead trouble and we set out a long-term economic plan to do that, which was about reducing the deficit and creating the basis for growth by creating the basis for jobs, security.”
“We’ve been following that path against a good deal of scepticism, doubts and many forces. I think it is beginning to work. We’ll see that more I think, by this time next year, and we shall be fighting the next election on the basis of presenting that economic plan to the British public, saying look do you want to vote for more of the same because there’s clearly more work to be done to complete that, or do you want to hand the keys of the car back to the people who crashed it int he first place. It’s a very straightforward choice.”
“At the end of the next election, I’ll make you one absolute prediction which is either Ed Miliband or David Cameron is going to be Prime Minister of this country. If you end up with David Cameron you’ll end up with the long-term economic plan continuing. If you end up with Ed Miliband you’re handing the keys of the car back to the people who crashed it. It’s a very simple election campaign.”
When pressed on the NHS, Letwin replied;
“Well the NHS depends on having an economy that can support it. The problems with the NHS are problems about money. We have locked-in over these 5 years increases in spending on the NHS in pace with inflation and we have just, as a result, been able to keep the NHS providing what it needs to provide.”
“There are a lot of reforms that need to happen to make that possible and there’s a constantly increasing demand for its services. The demand goes up about 3 or 4% each year, so its tough to make as much efficiency gain as the increase in demand if the cost is rising with demand and we’re only putting in only increases in line with inflation.”
“But we’ve managed that so far and we need to keep on managing it. Its only do’able if the economic plan works. The problem was that the country ran out of money. If it runs out of money again, it will not be able to support the NHS, schools, the Universities, many other things that we need. In the end, the economy and the public services are not two things. They’re two sides of the same coin.”
On privatisation of the NHS, Oliver Letwin explained;
“The issue about the NHS is providing free of charge at the point of care, the best possible service for patients. I don’t think most people care how that’s done, what they care about is it really good quality medicine and nursing care and preventative care and is it free. ”
“Our determination is to continue providing the best possible care for free. As I say, how you do that is not the issue I think. That’ll vary from place to place.”
On the rise of UKIP, and splitting the Tory vote, Oliver Letwin explained;
“I think in the European elections, if you read all the polls, you’ll see that UKIP is doing very well. We have to try to persuade people in the course of this European election campaign, that it actually does matter that you end up with MEP’s who can do the job for them.”
“I think many people who are tempted to register a protest vote by voting UKIP, a protest vote against the European Union and against some of the things it does – in some ways very understandably – are missing the point that actually having the right people there as MEPs fighting for Britain matters, so we’ve got to persuade people of that to the greatest possible extent.”
“But I think when it comes to 2015, people will recognise that the election is about whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is Prime Minister and about whether our long-term economic plan is the right course for the country. We’ve got to persuade people that’s the case, however the European elections go.”
Richard Robinson added to that, by saying;
“And beyond that, of course, we come back to the Referendum. If you are anti-European, if you want a vote on Europe, the only way you are going to get it is with a Conservative Government. So a vote for any other party doesn’t get you what you want or what I think the people need & deserve.”
I asked about the size of the constituency, and whether there was a case for changing that electoral system. That drew a little laugh from both men, clearly themselves finding the prospect of covering finding the whole of the South East of England a daunting one.
Richard Robinson said;
“Well there’s a case for never doing it this way in the first place.”
“What the treaty says is that it should be the same electoral system across Europe. It’s not, so I think there is always room to look at it.”
“I would prefer a different system to the one we’ve got, but this is the one we’re fighting under so you just focus on what you didn’t win. Six and half million voters, 84 Parliamentary constituencies, you know [dejectedly shrugs shoulders]…”
Oliver Letwin added;
“It didn’t use to be this way of course. It used to be county based.”
Finally, I asked both men if there was anything that they would like to say to the readers of Eastleigh News.
Oliver Letwin said;
“Only that I hope they will actually pay real attention both to the candidates that they are putting in to run the Councils that actually affect their lives and that they’ll pay real attention to who it is that they are electing to the European Parliament, because it will actually matter over the next few years, regardless of what general views they may have, actually to have people there who are competent and able to defend the interests of this country. “
Richard Robinson said;
“I just want to add to that, that I hope people do actually vote. Turnout in the European elections at least, has fallen for every direct European elections since the first one in ’99. I’d like to see that reversed. Decisions are made by those who turn up. You get the Governments you vote for and I think both for local Councils and for Europe, its important that people get out there and vote.”
Eastleigh News would like to thank Oliver Letwin MP and Richard Robinson for being generous with their time, despite their busy schedules…