George Osborne has predicted that the EU referendum will settle the debate over Britain’s “often fractious” relationship with the EU for at least a generation and possibly for the rest of his lifetime as he ruled out a second vote.
The chancellor, 44, who could live well into the second half of this century, said that voters would be given a “once in a lifetime” chance to decide on Britain’s EU membership as the Tory party experienced an early skirmish in the referendum battle.
Chris Grayling, the Commons leader, was accused by the former immigration minister Damian Green of “peddling myths” about the EU following his declaration that membership in its current form was “disastrous” for Britain.
The chancellor moved to highlight the gravity of the decision facing the British people when he ruled out a second referendum and spoke of a “once in a lifetime” chance to have a say. He told Newsnight on BBC2: “There’s no second vote. This is the crucial decision of our lifetimes. Do we stay in the European Union, a reformed European Union, or do we leave?
“I think anyone who votes ‘out’ on the assumption that a year or two later you can have another vote to vote back in, is being unrealistic about the nature of the choice. I think it’s really important that the British people focus on the fact this is the once in a life time decision.”
The chancellor also predicted that the referendum would settle the debate for a generation at least, if not the next 50 years. Asked whether the referendum would settle the matter, he said: “You know, I think it will for, you know, for at least a generation, probably for my lifetime.”
Osborne’s remarks about the definitive nature of the referendum, which echo comments by the prime minister in the autumn, are likely to have been aimed at Boris Johnson who flirted in the summer with the idea of endorsing a second referendum.
Dominic Cummings, the main strategist at the Vote Leave campaign, has floated the idea of two referendums in an attempt to win wavering voters round. Cummings says a second, definitive referendum should be held on the new settlement the UK would agree with the EU in the event of a no vote. Ministers reject this idea on the grounds that the two years of negotiations after an initial no vote would take place under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty which covers a country leaving the EU.
The remarks by the chancellor were also designed to show that the government will, if it is successful in its EU negotiations, offer a more substantive and honest offer than Harold Wilson did in 1975 after the late Labour prime minister renegotiated the terms of Britain’s EEC membership. Osborne insisted that the government’s negotiations would substantially change the nature of Britain’s EU membership by giving non-euro countries, such as the UK, greater protection.
Ministers frequently say that the Yes camp in 1975 was not honest in telling voters that they were signing up for a political project. Voters were asked whether they supported continued membership of the EEC, or common market.
The chancellor’s interview, in which he spoke of his determination to keep the UK in a reformed EU if the government succeeds in its negotiations, came after Damian Green, the pro-Europe former immigration minister, criticised Grayling after he became the first member of the cabinet to signal publicly that he will join the campaign to leave the EU.
In a carefully worded article for the Daily Telegraph, Grayling said the crisis within the eurozone and the challenge of migration had led to moves to create a “greater political union” in the EU.
The leader of the Commons wrote: “We have reached what I believe is a crucial crossroads for the United Kingdom. The crisis in the eurozone and the migration challenge have led to calls for still more integration and a move towards much greater political union. It is a path that the UK will not and should not follow.”
Green challenged his former ministerial colleague. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “I think [Chris] is peddling myths about Britain in Europe … The key myth in Chris’s article is when he says there are calls for still more integration. It is a very explicit and very important part of the prime minister’s renegotiation that Britain won’t be committed to ‘ever closer union’. That is actually a big change in our relationship with the rest of the EU.”
Grayling signalled to fellow Eurosceptics that he would be a leading figure in the campaign to leave the EU while respecting David Cameron’s instructions to ministers that they must support his EU negotiations until they have been concluded. He praised the prime minister for seeking to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership terms, which were, he said, currently unacceptable.
“I strongly believe that David Cameron is right to seek new terms for our membership before that vote happens,” he said. “I am someone who believes that simply staying in the EU with our current terms of membership unchanged would be disastrous for Britain. That’s why I have always believed that it is imperative that his renegotiation takes place and delivers as much potential change as possible. It is in the interests of all Eurosceptics and of our country. I want Britain to choose between a changed relationship and leaving, and not between the current situation and leaving.”
The Commons leader is one of four cabinet ministers who are all but guaranteed to campaign for Britain to leave the EU when they take advantage of the prime minister’s decision to lift collective cabinet responsibility once the negotiations have been completed.
The three other cabinet ministers are expected to be Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary, and John Whittingdale, the culture secretary. Priti Patel, the employment minister who first made her name in politics as a member of the late James Goldsmith’s Referendum party, will be thinking carefully about which way to jump.
Grayling showed his strength of feeling on the EU when he told the prime minister in a face-to-face meeting last week that he should announce plans to allow ministers to campaign on either side during the referendum. Cameron announced a relaxation of the rules the next day.
Grayling is keen to mark out his territory as a leading opponent of Britain’s EU membership to ensure he can play a significant role in the Vote Leave campaign when cabinet collective responsibility is lifted. He will be nervous that he could be overshadowed by the more senior Duncan Smith, who is planning to keep his powder dry until the EU negotiations have been concluded.
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