Gambling the Conservative economic record


In today’s Daily Telegraph I’ve co-signed a letter with 20 fellow MPs in support of Conservatives for Reform in Europe, the new campaign which I chair. They include former ministers, senior MPs and a number who are known to be particularly sceptical about the EU, for instance rebelling against the Government in the last Parliament to demand a referendum.

We repeat our campaign’s central argument that a strong Britain in a reformed Europe would give us the best of both worlds: outside the euro, and protected from deeper integration, but able to access the single market; in the world’s greatest trading block of over 500 million people, but still outside the Schengen area and so able to maintain our borders. We would need to be very sure about the alternative before throwing such an advantageous position away.

But we also make a new point which is particularly important for Conservatives:

We are proud of the achievements of this Conservative Government in turning the economy around, putting Britain at the top of the world growth league and delivering record job creation. But in an unstable world the recovery remains fragile and there is still work to do. It is time for Conservatives to weigh up the benefits as well as the costs of EU membership carefully, and focus on the real risks which leaving the EU could have on our economic success.

Those who advocating leaving the EU regardless of whether the PM secures his reforms or not are saying that Britain will be better off outside the EU. So despite no economy in the G7 having grown faster than Britain since 2010; despite the OBR’s forecast that the economy will grow robustly, living standards will rise, and more than a million extra jobs will be created over the next five years, Brexit campaigners claim this record isn’t good enough.

Their message is: however well Britain is doing, we should gamble on doing better. How much better they cannot say. How we will maintain the economic benefits of access to Europe’s market they cannot begin to answer. It’s a huge – indeed, I would say incredible – ask.

Leave campaigners refuse to acknowledge any of the economic risks of exit, but the rest of us need to weigh these carefully. When Britain’s economy is already performing well, the burden of proof that it’s worth taking a risk to do so much better must surely be very high. For people like me, who have contemplated leaving (as I wrote in my book Why Vote Conservative? last year), the balance of the scales would tip if, for instance, we could not protect ourselves from deeper integration in the Eurozone, or address concerns about immigration. But provided there is reform to tackle these issues, and especially while there is global economic instability, the risks of jumping into a void start to look overwhelming.

Conservatives have a considerable political investment in our success in re-building Britain’s economy. We should think long and hard before we decide to gamble that record on an entirely uncertain new course.