I LIKE feisty meetings. A firm exchange of views – the occasional friendly joust. I had just such an experience recently in Bovey Tracy on the issue of the UK's membership of the EU. This was just before the Prime Minister delivered his big speech on Europe and there was much speculation about what it might contain.
The overwhelming consensus was that he needed to offer a straight in-out referendum. I agreed. Well, the speech has now been delivered and it has not disappointed. We are to get our in-out referendum but subject to one vital caveat – something that I will come back to.
Legislation for the referendum will be drawn up now and taken through parliament immediately after the General Election. There will be a renegotiation of our terms of membership to rid us of political interference and to re-boot our relationship based on free trade. There will then be a straight in-out referendum. The British people will decide whether to accept the new terms or to walk away. This referendum will be held before the half-way point of the next parliament.
Some will argue that any referendum should be held now. But the reality is that the Conservatives do not have a majority in the House of Commons and so would only be able to get this through with the support of Labour or the Lib Dems, neither of whom are on-side.
And besides surely it would be folly to go straight to an in-out referendum without at least finding out what renegotiated deal might be on the table – a renegotiation assisted by the fundamental changes required in the EU in response to the eurozone crisis. Others will argue, in my view wrongly, that David Cameron promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but then reneged, so how can he be trusted to deliver on this pledge?
The answer to that is that we will not only have the pledge in our manifesto but we will also have drafted the legislation required to go through Parliament in order to put it into effect. It will be alive, waiting and ready to go. There is though, as I suggested earlier, a vital caveat to all this. It is a matter of politics. If we are to have the referendum set out by the Prime Minister in London last week, we will need to have a Conservative majority government after the next General Election. Anything else and you can say goodbye to our chance to have our say for a long while to come. Labour and the Lib Dems are against a referendum. And UKIP? Well a vote for them will not yield a single seat in Parliament but could prevent a Conservative government being formed next time around with the most bitter and bleak of consequences for those who support UKIP's principal raison d'etre.
SOMETHING that gives me particular satisfaction is pressing a constituent's concerns directly with ministers on the floor of the House. Recently I raised the issue of human rights abuses in Mali. This followed a meeting with my constituent Caroline Hart who helps to run the Chagford-based voluntary organisation The Joliba Trust. This fine charity assists Malians in the poorest region of the country.
Asking a question on Mali was timely given recent developments. The north of the country is in the hands of Al-Qaeda inclined rebels and the worry for the West is that these forces could over-run the country and use it as a base for terrorism. Many innocent Malians have been disposed of their land and many others have become the victims of indiscriminate violence – a problem leading the International Criminal Court to announce a war crimes investigation.