CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

EUROPE – EMU DISCUSSIONS – 22 June 2000

Dr Julian Lewis: What discussions he has had with (a) the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe and (b) the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the timing of any move to replace the pound by the euro?

[The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson): The Government's policy on membership of the single currency remains as set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1997, and restated by the Prime Minister in February 1999. The Government have said that they will recommend joining a successful single currency only if it is in our national economic interest to do so, and if the economic case for the UK joining is clear and unambiguous.]

[SUPPLEMENTARY:] I hesitate, Madam Speaker, even to dream of usurping your job, but I am not sure that that was an answer to the question that I asked, which was whether the Chancellor had met the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss factors determining their decision to join the single European currency. I even spared the Chancellor's blushes by not including the Foreign Secretary in that list.

Is not it the case that if the Chancellor ever gets back on speaking terms with any of his ministerial colleagues, the test that they will be discussing will be not the economic tests with which he is so fixated or the Euro-federalist test with which his colleagues are so fixated, but the size of the overwhelming majority of the British people – two thirds – who are resolutely opposed to abandoning our economic and political sovereignty by replacing the pound with the single currency? Is not that what it is really about?

[Miss Johnson: I am afraid that, according to the Tory party, Paul Sykes will decide what is in the national economic interest. We believe that there should be a referendum and that the people of the UK should decide what is in our national economic interest.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I was wondering whether the representations that have been made on the euro include representations from Mr. Ian Campbell, who was mentioned earlier in this Question Time by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) as a director of a national charity, which indeed he is. The charity that he directs is the Institute of Export, which regularly echoes the language of the Conservative party in its broadcasts, and which has nothing to do with dealing with child poverty and the other issues that we were discussing at the time.

Madam Speaker: Order. That question was totally out of order, and does not relate to the original question. Let us try somebody else.

Mr Bill Rammell (Harlow): Does the Minister agree that there is absolutely unity of purpose within the Government on the single currency? Is not that the most enormous contrast with what happened under the last Conservative Government, when we had Conservative MPs putting out different general election manifestos and we even had the previous Conservative Prime Minister describing three of his Cabinet colleagues as the illegitimate ones?

Miss Johnson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Tory party has always been split on Europe and on the euro. A survey in the Daily Telegraph of 50 prospective Conservative candidates suggests that the party is shifting even further to the right on Europe, if that is possible. Out of those 50 candidates, 33 take a harder anti-European stance than the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): The House will draw its own conclusions from the fact that the Chancellor prefers to speak on charities and unemployment in the north-east rather than on the euro or pensions. Notwithstanding the fact that he will be sitting immediately behind the Economic Secretary, might she care to tell the House, assuming that the conditions of entry are met in the Chancellor's opinion, why she thinks Britain should join the euro and what the advantages are?

Miss Johnson: We have said that we will consider whether we meet the five economic tests early in the next Parliament and that we will do so in terms of our national economic interest, which includes the 3.5 million jobs that are highly dependent on our continued membership of the EU – something that is deeply in question with Conservative Members.

Mr Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Can I lob my hon. Friend a very friendly question? Can I tell her that, when I meet business men in my constituency, they ask me, "When can we have the referendum?", and I tell them, "I guess it'll be in 2002" –discuss?

Miss Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his very helpful question. Of course, early in the next Parliament, we will look at how we are meeting the economic tests that we have set ourselves, and then we will decide whether it is right to put it to the British people. It should be remembered that, in all of this, we have at heart Britain's economic interests and that we play a constructive role in the EU. In the past few days, we have secured a victory for the United Kingdom's national interest on the withholding tax, so it is very clear what a constructive role in Europe can do for this economy and its people.

Mr Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea): May I suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he will come to regret his decision not to answer this question, because it speaks volumes about the state of the Labour party that he is not willing to answer a question on the central economic issue of the day – the Government's position on the euro? Will the Economic Secretary, who has been put in this hapless position, admit that only one of the five economic tests that have been set out by the Chancellor could in any way be thought of as being objective – and even that could be massaged by the Chancellor – and that the other four tests are wholly subjective? The potential effect of the euro on unemployment, on the City, on flexibility and on investment are merely matters of opinion, on which different members of the Cabinet will doubtless take different views in due course. The tests that he has set out offer Britain no protection whatever against a potentially catastrophic decision. Will the Financial Secretary accept that the five economic tests amount to little more than four fudges and a fiddle?

Miss Johnson: That is complete rubbish. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would care to comment on whether he supports his earlier statements on Europe, including that in "A Vision for the 1990s" – published by the Conservative Political Centre in 1992 – in which he said that the British people and British business in particular did not want to be left out of Europe. Does he agree with that statement, or does he wish to retract it?]