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EU Constitution Referendum

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now come to the next debate on the Opposition motions. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.16 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I beg to move,

I wish to apologise at this stage because, for personal reasons that I have explained to Ministers and to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I will have to leave during the course of the debate and I will not be present for the wind-ups. However, I make no apology for once again initiating a debate on the draft constitution and the need for a referendum. This is a vital issue—

Alan Howarth (Newport, East) (Lab): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ancram: If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my theme a little, I will give way to him in due course.

The Leader of the House may in the past have belittled the constitution as a tidying up measure. It has always been considerably more than that. That is why the failure to agree it in Brussels in December was greeted with such anger and frustration by Europe's arch-integrationists. Now it is back. I am not surprised: I know how much it means to those in Europe who seek a single European state and who were never going to let it rest. I watched with some amusement the attempts of the Government to pretend that it was off the agenda and was likely to be so for some time. That was always a typical new Labour smokescreen, behind which this coyly integrationist Government could seek to ensure that this integrationist constitution would come back with a vengeance, and with as little time to oppose it as possible.

Last Friday ended what must be the most bizarre set of gyrations and about-turns performed by a Government on a major issue for a very long time. It is worth recalling the sequence of events. In 1999, the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), told the House:

The Prime Minister, in Warsaw in October 2000, told us that a constitution was "unnecessary". In Cardiff, in November 2002, the Prime Minister told us that

Yesterday, according to the Prime Minister, it was apparently anti-European to be against a constitution. Even chameleons do not change their colours that quickly. But this is the party and the Prime Minister who, in 1983, stood on the platform of withdrawal from Europe. Whatever the reasons for the U-turns, high principle certainly is not one of them.

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Let us consider the past four months. The constitution that the Prime Minister told us last summer was "essential" for enlargement of the EU was suddenly no longer essential in December. We were told that we could get by with the Nice treaty. A "senior Government source", later unmasked as the Foreign Secretary, remarked last November that a constitution would be "highly desirable" but not "absolutely necessary".

Furthermore, if we are to believe the article on page 21 of the Financial Times today, after the failure to achieve agreement on the constitution in Brussels last December, the Foreign Secretary sent a memo to the Prime Minister advising him to do nothing to revive it. That is until last Friday, when suddenly the newly revived constitution was apparently once more essential for enlargement to work. A lawyer or accountant giving such confused advice would quickly be sued for professional negligence.

Alan Howarth: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is asking for rigour in these matters, so, given that the draft constitution is only a recommendation to the intergovernmental conference and that that conference has not yet made its recommendations to the legislatures of the member states, how can he know at this stage that the issues for decision would be worth a referendum? Is he not simply whipping up anti-European sentiment to exploit it for party political purposes?

Mr. Ancram: The right hon. Gentleman has been in politics for a very long time and he can read the runes as well as I can. Does he really believe that the Irish presidency would have announced that it would return to the constitution without being pretty well assured that everything was signed, sealed and delivered? I think that there will be very few changes, but it will be interesting to see what happens on 18 June—when in this country we shall of course be celebrating the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Is not the worry that the constitution is not already signed and sealed, and that the Irish Prime Minister is telling the truth when he says that it is still to be agreed and that further compromises are necessary? It is in those circumstances that it is so important to put the constitution to the people of this country. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that if that were the Government's position we would not need this debate?

Mr. Ancram: That would certainly be the case but, unfortunately, that is not where we are. In politics, I am a great believer in starting from where we find ourselves, but I agree that the position outlined by the right hon. Gentleman would have been preferable.

Some changes have to be made in the positions that were held in December. For instance, we know that the Spanish and the Polish Governments will have to move from their former position on weighted voting, but all the indications are that both have decided to do so. I may be anticipating the final outcome, but I suspect that I shall be right in my judgment that the constitution will be much as it is now.

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The only explanation for the twisting and turning of the past months is that the Prime Minister, in his much-vaunted determination never to be isolated in Europe, is fulfilling that ambition by simply going with the flow—always accepting the position in which the constitution happens to be at a particular time. I have tried hard to understand the Government's position. I have listened closely to the Prime Minister. I quote again from the speech he made in Cardiff on 28 November 2002, when he talked of a

In January 2002, according to the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister told his colleagues that the constitution

In June last year, the Prime Minister suddenly told Parliament that the constitution

From that series of remarks, one can pick whichever position one wants. They do not give us much confidence that the Prime Minister has a clear view of what the constitution stands for.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ancram: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I want to make some progress.

I have also been listening to the Leader of the House; after all, he was the Minister for Europe for a considerable period. On 21 March 2002, he told the Convention on the Future of Europe that he was looking for

That is very different language from that of the Prime Minister in the remarks I just quoted. Of course, the Leader of the House is the same man who, on 26 May last year, described the constitution as a "tidying-up exercise". Once again, on the Government's position, "you pays your money and you takes your choice". Either the Government, jointly and severally, have no idea what the constitution is about, or they are deliberately trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the British people and of Parliament.

What we can be clear about is that there is no such ambivalence or confusion across the channel. Our partners in Europe know what the constitution is about. The accession countries have their doubts, as I have discovered on recent visits, but they will be reluctant to push those doubts too far until they are full members. Traditional integrationist Europe—the Europe of Chancellor Schröder and Giscard d'Estaing—has no such doubts. The constitution is federalist, integrationist and, in their minds, urgent. The Belgian Prime Minister referred to it as the "capstone" of a "federal state". On 14 June last year, Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, described it as "worthy of the word historic" and as

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Last May, the Danish Prime Minister said:

Former Italian Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, said:

So why is it that our Government are so alone in arguing that the constitution is not significant? It can only be because their agenda is to try to get us into an integrationist Europe, effectively without anyone noticing. That is why, when they are challenged, as the Prime Minister was by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, they retreat into spurious and polarising arguments about the choice being not between the constitution and other solutions to the problems of Europe, but between being in Europe or getting out. That is a fraudulent argument, designed to divert attention from the Europe that they really want.

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