Letter from Westminster
One of the best things about being an MP is that after ten-and-a-half years it can still produce fresh challenges. As I settled into my seat around the Question Time table in Glasgow next to David Dimbleby I did find myself wondering whether this was a challenge that I had been wise to undertake. In the run-up to the General Election I spent a lot of time in television studios but since I became the party’s chief whip this has reduced drastically.
To go from a prolonged lay-off like that straight into doing a programme watched literally by millions is quite a step. This was a programme that I had watched as a teenager with developing political views and as the programme started there were a few butterflies in my stomach. Appearing on a programme like that as the representative of the government brings with it a different set of constraints. There is very little scope for straying off the government line on any policy area – however tempting that may be. Earlier in the day I was given a briefing by a civil servant from 10 Downing Street who was a very bright and pleasant young man but who was a little on the earnest side. As we discussed different answers I might give to possible questions I could see that he was getting more uneasy with my slightly cavalier attitude to policy.
Once we started recording the hour flew past. In truth I suspect that the size of the panel (there were six of us) probably meant that the debate never really sparkled. It was still a gig that I enjoyed – not least because after the recording it allowed me to have dinner with the rest of the panel and to spend some time chatting to actor and fellow panel member Brian Cox.
The following Monday it was back to London where the House was abuzz over the vexed question of the UK’s role in Europe. Conservative views range from the positive to the deeply sceptical and the full range of opinion was on show during a backbench motion debated in the Commons that afternoon. The motion called for a referendum on our continued membership of the EU.
I was among the majority of MPs who voted against. While I believe that a referendum on our membership of the EU is inevitable at some point, what was on offer last week was not the straight in or out question that I support. It offered a third option of ‘renegotiating’ the terms of our membership. I am not clear about how this would be done.
As the Prime Minister also made clear in the House, at a time when we are still facing profound economic challenges securing the recovery needs to be the government’s priority. It would be wrong for ministers to be focussing on complicated constitutional issues when more urgent problems wait to be addressed. The obvious point at which we should have a referendum is if there is another treaty change and in my view this referendum needs to give the British people a clear choice – are we in or are we out.
Alistair Carmichael MP