I am a long-standing Eurosceptic. As such, I voted against the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, and other integrationist initiatives, when in Opposition. Since then, I continued to vote against integrationist measures and for a fairer deal for the British taxpayer. I have voted against my own Government at various times – including voting to reduce the EU Budget and for an in/out referendum when the Government opposed the idea.
In June 2012, I instigated a letter to the-then Prime Minister, David Cameron, which was co-signed by 100 Conservative backbenchers, calling for legislation in that Parliament for an in/out referendum in the next. This was followed up by meetings with the Prime Minister. Having commended the Prime Minister on his Referendum decision, we then pushed the Government to introduce legislation in the current Parliament – the 100 sending another letter to the Prime Minister in April 2013.
In the week preceding the 2013 Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister gave strong indications there would be an EU Referendum Bill included in the Government’s legislative programme. When this did not materialise, I tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting the absence of such legislation – the first time a member of the governing party had attempted to amend the Queen’s Speech since 1946. Although the vote on 16th May 2013 was defeated, 115 Conservatives, the DUP and many Labour MPs supported my amendment.
As a result, the Government changed its position and supported legislation for an in/out referendum – such legislation would have had the benefit of being more believable than election manifesto promises.
The Liberal Democrats vetoed a Government Bill, but I was pleased the Conservative Party supported legislation by means of the Private Member’s Bill secured by James Wharton MP. Though this Bill cleared the Commons, it was talked out by Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers in January 2014. However, our efforts showed it was the Conservative Party which was behind the people on this crucial referendum issue.
Robert Neil MP, a Conservative, secured the third highest slot in the 2014/15 Private Member’s Bill Ballot, and took up the defeated Referendum Bill. If it had passed through the Commons, the intention was to use the Parliament Act to allow it to bypass the Lords and become law.
Following the Conservative victory at the 2015 General Election, I was very pleased the EU Referendum Bill was one of the first items of Government business. Myself and other Conservative MPs had to work together to ensure fairness as regards the timing and conduct of the referendum – including by voting against the Government when necessary.
In the 2016 referendum, I strongly supported the ‘leave’ campaign, and was pleased to see that nearly 70% of voters in the Basildon area also voted to leave the European Union. I supported the Government through the Article 50 votes, and will continue to support a ‘clean’ Brexit – leaving the Single Market; ending ‘Freedom of Movement’ in favour of a controlled and fairer immigration system open to the whole world, not just the EU; and leaving the Customs Union.
Given the Attorney General’s legal advice that the UK could be trapped indefinitely in the backstop, I voted against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement on all three occasions – becoming one of the so-called ‘Spartans’. During this process I attempted to remedy the situation, including by means of my amendment on 15th January 2019 which sought to mandate the Government to negotiate a unilateral British exit from the backstop. Unfortunately this was defeated – by the largest majority in Parliamentary history (600 votes to 24) – but a very similar amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady was passed a fortnight later.
With the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister came a concerted effort to remedy the worst aspects of the backstop, which he largely achieved in his negotiations prior to the 2019 General Election. The Government was then able to use its new majority to finally break the Brexit deadlock and pass the improved Withdrawal Agreement, ensuring we finally left the EU at the end of January 2020. I have written a fuller account of the years leading up to the referendum and our eventual withdrawal.
The Prime Minister and his negotiating team deserve huge credit for arranging the UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement by the end of 2020, despite many stating that such an agreement would take over a decade to negotiate. Businesses and individuals on both sides of the Channel are getting used to the new arrangements, and we are all watching this situation carefully.
I continue to be concerned about the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is being applied in a manner that is disproportionate and heavy-handed given the lack of evidence of the Single Market being affected by British goods. I have spoken about this in Parliament, and continue to follow events closely. The Government should be unafraid to trigger Article 16 if necessary.