The debate took place on a chilly February afternoon in Westminster.
A handful of MPs gathered in a two-thirds empty chamber on Thursday to debate not a minor hobby horse of an obscure backbench MP but something of genuine national import: the upcoming European Referendum, an issue that has divided the Conservative Party for over a century.
I studied the history of The Corn Laws at A Level, I know how this story ends.
The title of the debate: ‘Backbench Business: Parliamentary sovereignty and EU renegotiations’ sounded reasonable enough but at the list of people who spoke revealed merely the usual suspects: John Baron MP (Basildon and Billericay, Conservative), Sir William Cash (Stone, Conservative), Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot, Conservative), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall, Labour), David Nuttall (Bury North, Conservative)
With the exception of handful of Eurosceptic Labour MPs, it was another instance of the Tory party talking to the Tory party in a navel-gazing contest.
If these MPs were aiming to be heard by the country at large then they were mistaken. The country was at work, or doing something else more constructive.
The referendum on British membership of the European Union may have started life as an obsessional Conservative disorder but the net result of that referendum will have a profound impact on people living in the UK, whether or not they are interested in that debate.
David Cameron, aware that the impression that his party gives too often that this is some kind of political parlour game in a private members club urged his own MPs to set aside the views of their local constituency associations to make their decision based on ‘what is in their heart’
His plea was met with howls of outrage this weekend from 41 Conservative associations accusing him of dismissing ‘the very people who secured his victory’ and urging him and his MPs to ‘listen to the views of the grassroots.’
Civil war in the Conservative party, on ice for a few years now beckons as their ‘grassroots’ deploy the same grasp of political reality for which they have been openly mocking Labour members who elected Jeremy Corbyn.
A party that looks inwards, listening to its own self-reinforcing echo chamber rarely speaks for the electorate.
For politicos and those of us still licking our wounds after dire General Election results last year the current Tory malaise might be amusing but for the country at large the results of this political shambles could be both economically and socially disastrous.
It may be timely to remind ourselves of some arithmetic:
- the Conservative party has roughly 149,000 members
- The UK population is roughly 61 million.
- The CBI estimates 3 million jobs are dependent on our trade with the EU.
Once upon a time, the Conservative proclaimed itself the party of business.
More recently it has attempted to rebrand itself as the workers’ party pinching Liberal Democrat and Labour policies on raising the income tax threshold and introducing the Living Wage. and presenting them as their own.
However, if its MPs are foolhardy enough to align themselves with the Leave EU campaign, they will be allying themselves with a plan that directly jeopardises British jobs and British workers.
MPs representing seats known for the high number of jobs linked to international trade such as Finmeccanica-Helicopters (formerly Agusta Westland) in Yeovil, where I am now living, should be especially careful about what they say.
When asked if he was concerned about the potential detrimental impact on employment within his constituency, the local Conservative MP said he was ‘personally, not too worried’ yet bizarrely in the same breath argued that current EU regulation should be preserved to preserve trade with the EU!
Alternative science and technology funding would also need to be found, he declared refusing to reveal how exactly this might be achieved outside the auspices of the EU.
When people elect members of Parliament they expect them to take decisions based on what is in the best interests of their constituents and the country.
We are being encouraged by Leave campaigners to think that EU withdrawal is as easy as pulling the plug with no consequences. But there will be consequences.
Leavers can dispute hypothetical future outcomes until the cows come home but the facts speak for themselves: as things stand billions of pounds are invested by the EU in technology projects like Horizon 2020 that directly benefit the UK economy and its workforce.
What is in it for companies like Finmeccanica to continue investing in their British subsidiaries if they are no longer part of the EU?
A clear case where loose talk by Conservative MPs on leaving the EU could cost real jobs here in the UK.