Michael Heseltine: If leaving the EU truly is ‘in the nation’s interest’, let the people decide

What a welcome: most immigration to the UK is from outside the European Union: Getty Images
What a welcome: most immigration to the UK is from outside the European Union: Getty Images

However much the party establishment may wish it otherwise, this week the Conservatives will witness their Boris Fest. The talk in Birmingham will be of little else. Who is in front, the odds, the date. These are the questions that flow from the growing certainty that this race meeting is on the fixture card. Mr Johnson is the symbol of the instability at the heart of government which the activists gathered in Birmingham and their members of Parliament know could cost them the next election.

The death last month of Fenella Fielding, one of the most polished comic actresses of her time, reminded me of her sketch in 1959, when stretched out on an elegant couch, gesticulating with a ridiculously long cigarette holder, she reflected the mood of the “never had it so good” election, “Don’t let Labour ruin it”, clinched the argument.

There lies the problem. Most people have had their living standards frozen since 2008. The Conservatives under David Cameron and his Chancellor were left to clean up the consequences of the credit explosion in personal, corporate and government debt. Just as the recovery began, and Europe hauled itself back from the abyss, the Brexit cloud saw Britain slip from being the fastest-growing economy in Europe to one of the slowest.

There it will remain as the Brexit consequences bite. Grappling with this challenge, Whitehall appears paralysed into inactivity. An effective parliamentary majority was frittered away.

The Government, in theory, has three years to run in office. It needs to look as though it has a purpose relevant to the nation’s challenges. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, must be backed in his lonely but courageous battle to control public spending. If the party wants to plant its own money-making trees, the Labour Party will promise a forest. In the meantime, we will have to explain the interest rate consequences to cash-strapped homeowners.

Michael Heseltine (Rex Features)
Michael Heseltine (Rex Features)

Meanwhile, the devolution agenda has run out of steam. The Government talks about regaining control. Substituting Whitehall for Brussels will make no difference. We need effective local administrations that are now pioneering accountability with local mayors in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Tees Valley, Cambridge and Bristol. Why should other large swathes of our country be left behind?

Whitehall is full of separate budgets in different departments or quangos. We need a supremo similar to the model of Beaverbrook in the war. Development corporations should build new communities in conjunction with the HS2 stations. Council tenants should be empowered. The legislation exists. I put it there in the Nineties. Industrial strategy has yet to penetrate the culture of Whitehall’s compartments.

It will be said there is no majority for much of this. That is a job for the Whips. They are already deploying the usual armoury of threats to those courageous MPs who hold their convictions above party loyalty over Brexit. They would be better employed seeking to achieve social reforms helpful to our people.

But I know that none of this deals with the elephant in the room. The Prime Minister claims that the Tory party speaks for the national interest. I have always believed that. She now says leaving Europe is in the nation’s interest. Every Tory Prime Minister for whom I have worked told me the opposite. In April 2016, Mrs May articulated clearly our national self-interest and voted to remain in the European Union. She was right then, and wrong now.

We need a growing economy. We have to find an answer to the issues of immigration and confront the referendum decision. All are interwoven. Since Mr Cameron failed to agree immigration conditions with Europe, events have moved the agenda on. Germany, Holland, Sweden, Hungary and others have demonstrated a need for change. This opens a window for us to seek a new pan-European arrangement compatible with President Macron’s concept of concentric circles.

"The Government needs to look as though it has a purpose that is relevant to the nation’s challenges"

There would be three pillars to such an arrangement. Firstly, the acceptance that modern communication systems will ensure that the more enterprising of the young generation in the developing world will know in detail how much more prosperous we are. They will see the honeypot and be drawn to it. There will have to be an enforceable border, and we should agree to participate in a European border force to police it.

Secondly, we should co-ordinate our aid programmes with the rest of Europe to form a modern version of the Marshall Plan to invest in the economies from which immigrants will strive to come.

Thirdly, we should accept the principle of free movement for Europeans seeking work, agree repatriation arrangements for those who fail to find it and set a quota system to the number that can settle in any one year. In addition, we should exclude students from the immigration figures.

Finally, the bulk of immigrants today have nothing to do with Europe at all. The control of the numbers coming from outside the EU is completely within our sovereign power. I find it extraordinary that the Government promises to regain control of European immigrants yet it fails to use existing controls over the much larger numbers of non-European immigrants.

The European negotiations would take time. How much better to use such time, which is at present committed to a transition period from 2019 to 2022, during which the legal complexities of our exit next year are resolved.

That leaves the issue of the referendum. The original vote, already eroded by the death of an older generation and their replacement by new voters, won by a narrow margin to leave the EU. No one knows what that meant. They still do not. So who should decide if the final decision is in the nation’s interest? We need either a general election or another referendum.

Michael Heseltine is a former Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State