As the UK is set to leave the European Union at 11 pm tonight, regular contributor John Baron MP reflects on the long and gruelling battle in trying to secure a referendum back in the 2010-2015 parliament. 

At 11.00 pm tonight, the UK finally leaves the European Union. It has taken far longer than anticipated in the heady days after 23rd June 2016 and has led to two unexpected general elections – one elective, one compulsory. As we stand on the brink of once more becoming an independent and sovereign nation, I look back with some satisfaction on the campaign many of us waged in the 2010-2015 Parliament which laid the essential groundwork for the 2016 referendum.

I have always been a Eurosceptic and spoke about my misgivings with the EU during my selection meeting for the Billericay & District seat prior to the 2001 election in which I entered Parliament. I suspect it did me no harm with the local Conservative Association membership, and may even have swung their decision in my favour. 

Yet Euroscepticism was in the doldrums for much of the noughties – warnings about the shortcomings of the Euro fell on stony ground, and in 2005 ‘no’ votes to the European Constitution in the core EU countries of France and the Netherlands seemed to put paid to designs for a new overarching treaty. In the following year, the new Conservative leader implored his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’.

By 2010, however, the Eurosceptic dander was up. In no small part, this was courtesy of the arrogant manner in which the EU had ignored the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes and blithely proceeded to draw up the Treaty of Lisbon, which was less a spiritual successor to the EU constitution and more a carbon copy. This is what led Nick Clegg to demand an in/out EU referendum, with Liberal Democrat MPs storming out of the Commons in February 2008 when their related amendment to the Queen’s Speech was not chosen by Speaker Martin. At around this time, the financial crisis was also lighting a fire under the foundations of the Euro and exposing the very flaws many of us had raised all along.

Perhaps, as a result, much of the ‘new blood’ in the 2010 intake was significantly more Eurosceptic. This was especially important because the expenses scandal the previous year had caused a much larger number of MPs to stand down than usual, resulting in a large number of new MPs. At the same time, reforms to the House of Commons, again in the wake of the expenses scandal, provided for the establishment of a Back-Bench Business Committee as well as a rough mechanism allowing public petitions reaching a certain threshold to be debated in the Chamber.

One of these petitions, calling for a national referendum on our EU membership, was supported by hundreds of thousands of signatures, and this was taken up by the-then MP for Bury North, David Nuttall. A group of us had supported David’s application for a debate to the Back Bench Business Committee, and a date was set for 24th October 2011. The public interest garnered in advance of the debate was impressive, and it spooked the Conservative leadership enough to impose a three-line whip – very rare for a vote on a Back-Bench Debate motion which, while showing Parliament’s feeling on an issue, was not itself binding or substantive. 

The debate went on for five hours, and whilst the vote was comfortably lost by 483 votes to 111, over 80 Conservatives voted for it – Adam Holloway and Stewart Jackson losing their PPS positions to do so – as well as 16 Labour MPs, 8 DUP, 1 Liberal Democrat and even the Green Caroline Lucas MP. These were larger numbers than anticipated and revealed that those of us who supported a referendum was not as few as we had assumed. 

A group of Conservative MPs began meeting once a week in Parliament, to discuss how we could maintain momentum behind the referendum campaign. This group met throughout the 2010-2015 Parliament, and many (but not all) of the Eurosceptic amendments and related activities arose from our discussions. We kept a tight ship and, to the best of my knowledge, the whips never managed to penetrate our meetings.

One suggestion I made at one of these meetings was for a letter to the Prime Minister, calling for legislation to be passed in the current Parliament for an in/out referendum to be held after the next General Election. The logic was that the electorate had become used to being promised EU referendums, only for politicians to shelve the idea after they had been elected. David Cameron was himself caught by this, having not held a promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – although to be fair to him, Gordon Brown had already ratified the treaty by the time he became Prime Minister. 

Legislation on the Statute Book would carry much greater weight with the public than yet another manifesto promise, and although no Parliament can bind its successors, a Prime Minister in the following Parliament would have had to endure the political pain of repealing the legislation and actively denying the electorate their say on our EU membership. I accordingly drafted a letter, and with help from colleagues began soliciting support.

Between us, we managed to gather nearly 100 Conservative signatures, and I handed the letter over in person at No 10 on 27th June 2012. As agreed with the signatories, only the Prime Minister and I knew the full list of those who had signed it, and I would not be releasing the letter to the media – someone did leak the text of the letter to Guido Fawkes, but only No 10 and I had (and have) the list of signatories.

On the strength of the letter, I had a meeting with David Cameron on 9th July, during which we discussed the pros and cons of a referendum, and he did suggest that ‘fresh consent’ for our EU settlement could be sought once the EU was out of its current turmoil, a situation which he believed had scope to recast our relationship with the EU. A formal written response to our letter arrived on 18th September, which largely reiterated our discussion in July.

However, whilst on a visit to Brazil later in September, the Prime Minister announced that the electorate would be ‘consulted’ after the next General Election as to a new settlement with the European Union, and mentioned the ‘fresh consent’ idea he had raised with me earlier. Though he was keen to rule out leaving the EU, the Prime Minister nevertheless appeared to have conceded that a referendum of some form was on the cards, and his aides trailed an imminent ‘big speech’ on the EU which kept on being delayed and pushed back.

This announcement gave our referendum campaign fresh momentum, and accordingly, I sent a second letter to the Prime Minister on 20th November, signed by other Conservatives as before, welcoming his announcement in Brazil and restating our belief in the need to pass the necessary legislation in the current Parliament for an in/out vote after the 2015 General Election. In October 2012 I founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group for an EU Referendum, with the support of a great many colleagues from the Conservative, Labour and DUP benches (and the tacit support of at least one Lib Dem MP) who supported the idea of a referendum if not necessarily leaving the EU. 

The Prime Minister delivered his long-awaited EU speech at Bloomberg on 23rd January 2013, in which he set out that, should the Conservatives win the 2015 election, the country would hold an in/out EU referendum, following a period of renegotiation with the EU, by the end of 2017. This was excellent news, but we felt we were still not entirely home – why not pass the legislation now to make all this certain?

To this end, on 6th February 2013 I brought forward a Ten Minute Rule Bill, and on 2nd April we sent a further letter to the Prime Minister, now with over 100 signatures, welcoming his Bloomberg speech but once again calling for legislation to be passed within the Parliament – a live issue given the Queen’s Speech was looming. The Prime Minister’s response was warm, but pointing out that the Liberal Democrats, then in coalition with the Conservatives, would not stomach such legislation.

I understood the Prime Minister’s logic to a certain extent but also reflected on the fact that the Liberal Democrats had voted to support increasing university tuition fees despite their well-known opposition to them. I thought a bold move was required, and with some trepidation put down an amendment to the Government’s Queen’s Speech when the legislative programme was silent on referendum legislation, expressing regret that none had been forthcoming.

The clerks told me that it was only the second time since the Second World War that an MP from the governing party had tried to amend the Queen’s Speech, and I did have some concern as to possible consequences. It was not inconceivable that I might have lost the whip.

Possibly sensing an opportunity to cause trouble, aid came from a ruling from Speaker Bercow. Reading Standing Order 33 in a particularly generous manner, he selected my amendment and guaranteed it would be put to a vote. Some interesting conversations followed, including an involved meeting at the ‘22, and for a while, it seemed that the Government might even support it. 

When the vote came on 15th May, however, it was soundly defeated 227 votes to 130, but with 114 Conservatives nevertheless supporting it – with the rest abstaining as per the whips’ instructions. It was defeated by the votes of opposition parties, which did rankle on our backbenches, but such a strong showing of Conservative support meant an unstoppable momentum had been set in motion. 

Shortly after being bruised in the vote, the Conservative leadership announced it would be drafting its own referendum legislation, with the top Conservative in the Private Member’s Bill ballot being strongly encouraged to take up the legislation. The top spot was won by James Wharton, who gamely did so, with the Conservative whips instructing our MPs to attend the Friday sittings to give it the best chance of successful passage. 

The Bill passed all its Commons stages, despite concerted attempts to talk it out, by November 2013, but was ultimately stymied in January 2014 by serried ranks of Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers. An attempt by Bob Neil MP the following October fared little better, but the 2015 election was looming large and with it a Conservative manifesto promising a referendum. That election victory was all the sweeter for the certain knowledge that the referendum for which we had been campaigning for so many years was finally going to happen. 

But for our actions in the 2010-2015 Parliament, the country might have had to wait a good while longer for a decisive vote on our EU membership. The prospect of a referendum certainly helped us win the 2015 election, and finally aligned Parliament with the public desire for a referendum. As I toast our exit from the EU on Friday night, I will be thinking of all the momentous events of that Parliament and of me and my colleagues’ role in some of them.

5.00 avg. rating (97% score) - 6 votes