Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for all she has done to bring reason and detailed consideration of the facts to the debate on Europe. In doing so, she has contributed to the growing recognition, not just in the Conservative party but in other parties and in the country as a whole, that we need a better relationship with Europe. The question now is not whether we want or need a better relationship, but what the relationship should be and how we should get it. I will focus on how.

    Some of my colleagues think the answer is an in/out referendum, which they see as a “get out of jail free card”. It is not. It is wrong in principle to pose abstract questions to the electorate, but it is also unwise in practice. A detailed study of every referendum since the second world war, where there is opinion poll data, shows that on average there is a 17% swing back in favour of the status quo. I remind my hon. Friends that that means one has to start with a 34% lead for change to have a 50% chance of winning. If we start from the present position, with roughly half of people being in favour of leaving and a third in favour of staying, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire said, the idea that we would automatically win a referendum and that a majority would vote for “out” is probably a mistake. What we should do and what we ought to do in constitutional principle is negotiate a new deal. That is why we elect Parliaments and elect Governments, and we should elect a Parliament committed to doing that.

    Because a new deal will require unanimity among our partners, that will be possible only if our partners are the demandeurs: if they are going to be coming to us saying, “We want a new treaty, we want to change the existing treaties,” and they are probably going to be doing that on several occasions. The question that we ought to be confronting, and it would be proof that we are considering these matters seriously if we do, is whether we should go for a big bang solution and put forward everything that we want to change in one negotiation, or instead emulate the Euro-federalists and employ salami-slicing tactics—a slice here and another slice for the next treaty, and so on.

    We should record that the first change will be the most difficult, because Europe has the doctrine of acquis communautaire, under which no power once ceded to Europe can be referred back to individual nation states. The EU will put up the most almighty opposition if we merely want to repatriate powers over regulating birdwatching. If we want more serious things, the opposition will be even greater, but we have to establish first the precedent that powers can come back to member states; then, we can get ever more. Personally, I think salami slicing is probably the approach to use, but we should be discussing these issues. When we do, we will prove that we are serious about getting the new relationship that this country wants.