We have less than one month to go before casting possibly the most important vote of our lifetime. The arguments upon whether to remain in or leave the EU are complex. The very least the British public should expect from our politicians is that they be accurate and truthful and focus on our long-term wellbeing.
The Remain campaign has doggedly tried to do this. Vote Leave consistently fails to do so: instead they offer a mixture of confused or distorted facts that mislead rather than inform.
Those who challenge statements that are flimsy or demonstrably untrue are either personally disparaged, or accused of being part of a mythical 'Establishment plot'.
International bodies, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, are told they are 'wrong', or stooges of the Prime Minister. The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies is told that it is a 'paid-up propaganda arm' of the EU. Friendly overseas governments are criticised for 'interfering'.
Overseas investors in the UK receive the same crass response – even though they provide jobs for our people and taxes that pay for our public services.
The Governor of the Bank of England is castigated for warning of risks to the UK economy even though – if he failed to do so and the risks materialised – he would be accused of gross negligence.
So, too, would the Prime Minister and Chancellor, who are continually in the line of fire for presenting Government reports that warn of the risks of leaving Europe.
They have a responsibility to the British people to ensure all facts are before them, yet their statements are denounced with boorish monotony by Vote Leave, and with sneering asides from their acolytes, who taunt that those occupying No 10 'won't be there for long'.
When Michael Heseltine voiced dismay over foolish and inflammatory references to Hitler, he was dismissed as being 'from another era', the clear implication being that, because of his age, his views don't matter. On that basis, one can only assume that Vote Leave believes the arguments put forward by Michael's contemporary, Nigel Lawson, don't matter either.
Such playground name-calling is not only irrelevant but is offensive to millions of elderly voters who – although born in 'another era' – still have opinions, hopes and ambitions that matter very much indeed.
The tactics of Vote Leave are clear: to ignore the arguments and abuse their critics. But the British people deserve better than that as they search for the facts required to reach a balanced judgment before June 23.
I suspect the silent majority is irritated by, even contemptuous of, such evasion and political trickery. A couple of weeks ago, in a speech in Oxford, I sought to bring clarity to a number of issues where I believed the British people were being misled: notably, the cost of the EU, immigration and sovereignty. True to form, instead of addressing the argument, Vote Leave's only response was that I have 'always been wrong about Europe'.
This was an odd reply – especially since I kept the UK out of the euro and refused to sign up to the Schengen Agreement on open borders. Nonetheless, their evasion met its purpose and, once again, diverted the debate from their own misinformation.
So now, as the referendum vote comes nearer, I again ask the senior figures of Vote Leave to correct the inaccuracies and falsehoods they are peddling to the British people.
First, we do not – I repeat not – pay £350 million a week (the equivalent of £18 billion a year) to the EU. Vote Leave knows this. Yet, despite being urged to stop repeating such an obvious untruth – not least by the UK Statistics Authority – they continue to do so.
The facts are simple and clear: during the past five years – after taking account of our rebate and money returned to the UK – our average net payment to the EU was £7.1 billion.
Last year, the figure fell to just over £6 billion after payments to our farmers, businesses, scientific research and for regional aid such as flood defences.
But there is a much bigger point: the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that even if we stopped paying anything into the EU, the economic damage caused by leaving it would blow a £40 billion black hole in the nation's budget.
So, far from saving money if we left Europe, it would, in fact, cost us a very great deal more.
Even at this late stage, I hope Vote Leave will end their shameless distortion of the truth and admit, publicly and clearly, that the figures they use – on every piece of literature and every lick of paint on their battle bus – are wholly false. Their refusal to do so is simply breathtaking.
On the issue of immigration from Europe, again Vote Leave seems more focused on raising fears than setting out facts.
Their cavalier exaggeration of likely immigration flows has been the most distasteful aspect of this referendum campaign.
I understand very well the concern felt by many people about the current scale of immigration. This is an important issue. So let me turn again to it, in the hope of flushing out what Vote Leave's plans for border control may mean for present and future migrants.
First, a statement of fact: we are not, as they warn, facing the risk of 88 million migrants from Turkey and the western Balkans: this fear-mongering is the worst sort of 'dog whistle' politics.
It is highly unlikely that Turkey will join the EU for many, many years (if ever). And Vote Leave knows this. As Boris Johnson himself said: 'It is not remotely on the cards.' Quite so. Yet Vote Leave persist in raising more scare stories. Even if – at some far distant date – Turkey did join, are we really to believe that every one of her citizens would up sticks and head for the United Kingdom? Of course not.
Vote Leave's irresponsible and provocative oratory is intended purely to plant an entirely false image in people's minds. It is fear over fact. Responsible politicians should know better.
The entry of any country to the EU is in our hands. We can say No. We – the British – have an absolute veto on the entry of any country to the EU if we wish to use it. Vote Leave knows this, so what were they thinking of last weekend when they stated the opposite?
As one migrant scare story falls apart, Vote Leave raises another. And, to add emotion to their mischief, they warn that European migrants will have a negative impact on the NHS. This is spectacular misdirection, for without the skills of European migrants, the NHS would be heavily understaffed.
There are 54,000 EU citizens working in our Health Service as doctors, nurses and ancillaries, and a further 80,000 caring for the sick in Social Welfare. How many of us have been cared for in hospital by European doctors and nurses?
Who keeps our public transport running? Who keeps our hotel industry staffed? Who greets us each morning across the counter in coffee shops up and down the country? Collectively, these and other workers contribute far more in taxes than they take in benefit or care costs. Of course, there is a temporary problem of numbers of migrants. I totally accept this. But please note the word 'temporary'.
The growth of the eurozone economy – now clearly under way – will create more jobs across Europe which, in turn, should cut demand to come to the UK. But, in any event, a short-term migrancy flow from Europe should not be the issue that drives the UK out of an economic union that benefits our country immensely, and will continue to do so in the much longer term.
'Let's keep people out' is an easy slogan with a murky history – but Vote Leave needs to explain who their policy would affect, and how they will implement it.
Specifically, I would welcome their responses to the following points:
- Have they considered how their plans to cut EU migrancy would affect the immigration status of EU citizens now working in the UK – more than 110,000 of them in the NHS and social care system?
- What would be the effect of their policy on our caring services, transport, commerce and industry?
- How would their policy on leaving the EU affect British citizens living or working in Europe?
When Vote Leave turns its attention to the Single Market, their disregard for truth turns into utter confusion. Not only have they failed to dent the economic case for remaining in the EU, they can't even agree on their own case if we were to leave. Their heads are all over the place on this issue, and yet it is central to the quality of life for every individual and family in the UK.
Some in Vote Leave say the UK should leave the Single Market, lose all preferential access to it, and rely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules in future trade with Europe. It is hard to imagine any single event that would do more harm to our country's wellbeing.
Outside the EU, we would have to renegotiate more than 50 free trade agreements, which could take many years to complete and, as the Director-General of the WTO has said, 'leaving the EU would cost the UK many billions in trade tariffs'. The damage to our economic interests would be self-inflicted – and severe. Other Brexiteers disagree about leaving the Single Market. They say they would negotiate a different arrangement with the EU. Some want a Swiss arrangement; others a Norwegian arrangement; yet others an Albanian arrangement.
In the first two circumstances we would have to continue to pay into the EU budget and accept free movement of people. Not only that, but such a proposal would mean we would have to accept European rules and regulations, while having no say whatsoever in making them. In the third, we would have no access to the Single Market, which would do profound and long-lasting damage to our economy.
It's an absolute mess. No wonder the British people are left baffled, bewildered and confused. They need to know what all this would mean for their future, but Vote Leave are in such a muddle themselves that none of them seems willing or able to explain it to others.
Moreover, for the UK to have to obey rules and regulations without any influence over them would be an absurd and undignified position for a nation like Britain. It would be an absolute negation of sovereignty on trade rules. Instead of sharing sovereignty (as we do now), we would be surrendering it. Far from 'taking back control' as the Brexiteers trumpet they wish to do, we would be throwing it away.
Vote Leave has consistently failed to tell us how they see the UK outside Europe. They have glib slogans, but no solid detail. They know what they are against, but have no agreed position on what they are for. Some of the leaders of Vote Leave are my fellow Conservatives. Others are experienced parliamentarians. I don't doubt their patriotism, nor their commitment to their cause. But I am dismayed by the way in which they have conducted this campaign, which I believe to have been a fraud on the British people.
They have, knowingly, told untruths about the cost of Europe. They have promised negotiating gains that cannot – and will not – be delivered. They have hailed alleged advantages of leaving Europe, while ignoring even the most obvious obstacles and drawbacks. They have raised phantom fears that cannot be justified, puffing up their case with false statistics, unlikely scenarios and downright untruths. To mislead the British nation in this fashion – when its very future is at stake – is unforgivable.
We British are an open-hearted, open-minded, generous-spirited, compassionate people. The majority of us are decent and hard-working, wishing to do the right thing for our families, friends and communities. We have been an outward-looking, internationalist nation for centuries: Great Britons, not Little Englanders. We need to embrace Europe and the wider world, not exclude ourselves from it.
There will not be another referendum on Europe. This is it. The decision we take on June 23 will shape our country, our people and our livelihoods for generations to come. I have no doubt that the long-term positives of our country's membership of the EU far outweigh the short-term frustrations of it.
That is why each and every vote is crucial, for our children and grandchildren will not easily forgive us if we get it wrong.