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William Hague: Labour must keep their promise and hold a referendum

We meet here in Cheltenham this weekend conscious of the huge challenges that face our country, and conscious too that many millions of people now look to us to bring the change this country needs.

What they will see is a party that is ready for that change, that has the leader, that has the team, that has the policies and that has the great candidates, that make it ready to win and ready to govern.

On 4th June they will have the opportunity, not only to vote for a strong team of MEPs to represent Britain in Europe, and not only to vote for county councils that truly look after the interests of their council taxpayers, but also to pave the way for change at the general election which can now only be one year away, an election in which they can turn out the most financially disastrous, blindingly incompetent, grossly dishonest and disgustingly grubbiest of all the governments in the modern history of our country.

In the last month Gordon Brown has had one opportunity after another to act like a Prime Minister, to speak and act for the nation as a whole. But whether it was the matter of his Head of Strategy's smears, to the arguments over MPs' expenses, to the construction of a budget at a time of intense crisis, he has chosen to be narrow, partisan and factional rather than to act as the leader of a great country.

The sheer scale of this Government's mismanagement revealed in this week's budget, the carelessness with the nation's resources that it represents, the simple inability either to budget properly for the present or to avoid near-impossible liabilities for the future, make it not so much our choice to seek their removal from office as our solemn and necessary national duty; and we, the public face of the Conservative Party across the towns, cities and villages of Britain must promise each other that we will spare no effort, lose no day, abandon no voter and permit no faltering in our utter determination to carry out that duty.

This Spring Conference will show that there is an alternative: a Conservative routemap to recovery.

In their speeches tomorrow, David Cameron, George Osborne and Ken Clarke will show how we will bring law and order back to the financial markets, how we will tackle welfare dependency by making sure that everyone who can work does work, and how we will rebalance our economy for the future.

Above all, they will show that we need to tackle Labour's debt crisis by making sure government lives within its means, and that the Conservative answer is fiscal responsibility with a social conscience. For nothing is more damaging to a nation's future, more corrosive of its prospects and more draining of its energies, than to load on to the shoulders of future generations the burden of paying for the economic mismanagement of today. It is above all today's children who will end up cursing the day that their parents and grandparents elected Gordon Brown.

Except, of course, that they didn't. Our Prime Minister was not elected to his office by anyone.  He ran away from an election and then ran from a referendum, and that brings us of course to this European campaign - a campaign that is about trust.

For it is the saddest of all truths about this government that faced with disillusionment with politics they have only added to it, faced with mistrust they have only justified it, and beset with cynicism they have opted only to exhibit it. They have not only devalued the currency of the nation, but their breaking of promises has been so brazen, and in the case of the referendum so inexcusable, that they have debased the coinage of politics itself. Their legacy will be to leave office with the word of government less believed than at any time in our lifetimes - another aspect of the scorched earth they will leave behind them, on which only a new government can plant the seeds of trust and belief afresh.

The story of Labour's commitment to a referendum on the European Constitution, later renamed the Lisbon Treaty, is not that of a single u-turn but of a political figure -of-eight: first it was only a 'tidying-up exercise' and not important enough for a referendum, then it needed so much parliamentary scrutiny that it was too important for a referendum, then Tony Blair declared it had changed the nature of its importance and did indeed require a referendum before, faced with the near-certainty of rejection, Brown decided that the referendum promise was yet another one that he would simply break.

And so, despite every promise to the contrary, a Prime Minister no-one had voted for signed a treaty the people had never approved. No wonder he did not have the courage to turn up for the signing ceremony until after the photographs had been taken.

Another double denial of democracy.

National vetoes are now set to be abolished and a President of Europe established without any chance for the voters to have their say.

And the message we will take to the doorsteps in the coming weeks is that if you vote Conservative it is not too late to have the referendum you were promised; it is not too late to send Gordon Brown a message on June 4th so loud he cannot ignore it, and it is not too late to elect a Conservative Government that will fulfil the promise that all parties made at the last general election and to which only the Conservative party has stayed true.

We say to the voters on June 4th: you were promised you would be listened to, you were promised you would have your say. The one way you can still have your say is to vote Conservative.

Be clear that if a Conservative Government takes office while the Lisbon Treaty remains on the table but unratified by any one nation of the EU, the referendum on that treaty will take place within the opening months of the new government. It is a matter of trust; it is a matter of faith in politics; and our commitment rests on the truth that, in a democracy, lasting political institutions cannot be built without the people's consent.

Our vision is indeed of a Europe closer to its people. A Conservative Government will work tirelessly to bring that about. Some argue that we will stand apart from European affairs: they will find that nothing could be further from the truth. Our engagement with Europe will be intense and energetic, not the craven engagement of a Labour Government which three years ago gave up £7billion of the British rebate in return for vague promises already unfulfilled, but the cool-headed engagement of a country that will protect its national interest and seek common cause with its neighbours on issues that concern them all.

A Conservative Government will champion the enlargement of the EU, to anchor in Europe the war-torn nations of the western Balkans and to build the bridge to the east which Turkish membership will represent. We will not join the euro, and we will have among our major goals the return of social and employment legislation to national control, but we will be at the forefront of pressing for a completed single market, the lowering of trade barriers, and collective action on climate change.

And until that Government is elected, it is our MEPs who have been and will continue to be the advance guard of working for the Europe we want to see. In the new European Parliament, they will do so in a new grouping, for we will achieve our goal of creating a centre-right non-federalist grouping to help shape the future of Europe, keeping a pledge made by David Cameron and strengthening the diversity of debate and democracy inside the EU.

We will do so proud of what our MEPs have already been able to achieve.

One reason why it is so important that we get as strong a Conservative vote as possible to elect as many of you as possible is the importance of the work Members of the European Parliament do. Look at what Conservative MEPs have achieved in the past five years and the difference they've made.

They have delivered by preventing unnecessary interference from Brussels in people's lives: on keeping traditional British loaves and pints of milk in our shops, our old organs in our churches and our narrow boats in our canals. They've stood up for local producers and businesses by winning special status for British produce, including, Stilton Cheese, Cumberland sausages, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Cornish pasties, and Newcastle Brown Ale. They have done great work for British citizens in the EU, ensuring that the property rights of ex-pats in Spain were protected. And, I am proud to say, all our South-Western MEPs have been excellent representatives for their constituents in another place we always stand up for: Gibraltar.

They have helped obtain a freer market in services, supported legislation to simplify legislation on trade in goods by extending the principle of mutual recognition, drafted legislation on simplified imports and export procedures, now in force, led the charge on liberalisation in energy markets - never more important than now when we need to build energy security and keep prices down - as well as on telecoms markets. They have done great work campaigning for freer trade across the Atlantic and on ensuring that the EU enforces its rules on competition. That is an outstanding record and this party should recognise and applaud what this team of MEPs has achieved.

It is because our MEPs have such a good track record that we can so easily make the case that there should be more of them.

The prime reason for joining the then EEC more than thirty years ago was to enjoy the benefits of free trade with the continent, and it is now the case that few things are more important to our prosperity than the cause of free trade in Europe today. If Europe does not become more competitive then there is a terrible danger that in a world of new economic giants our neighbourhood will slip into a certain economic obsolescence. If Europe lurches into beggar-my-neighbour protectionism then we will all be the poorer. That is why it is absolutely crucial that in the next European Parliament there are Conservative MEPs to champion global free trade and strict and fair application of the rules of the Single Market.

Hand in hand with the promotion of free markets across Europe goes the fight against those in Europe who want the EU to impose unsustainably costly red tape on businesses and public services. We have not won every fight - Labour, the Unions and the rest of the European Left have pushed through Agency Workers' Directive. But I want to pay tribute to the outstanding work our MEPs have done in defending the opt-out from Working Time directive, upon which depends the viability of thousands of businesses, of our fire services, of care homes and which crucial for our National Health Service.

On global warming, one of the greatest challenges the world faces, our MEPs have been at the forefront of European co-operation to build a sustainable future for all the peoples of Europe, striking the balance between the need for economic growth and the quality of the environment. They were crucial in getting the right result on the REACH directive on chemicals and ensured that testing of new chemicals on animals is kept to a minimum. They have taken a leading role in the European Parliament's committee on climate change and led the debate on air pollution. They have done more than deliver for Britain.

They have helped shape action in an area where the right European policy is vital for our future.

On global poverty by far the most important goal for global wealth creation - a successful conclusion to the Doha trade round - has sadly proved impossible to obtain. But our MEPs have been at the head of those campaigning for freer and fairer world trade in the Europe Parliament.

They have done fantastic work for the defence of human rights across the world, from Zimbabwe to Central Asia to Darfur. They have worked to promote democracy in countries from the Ukraine to Peru.

That is a record our Party can be proud of. We are campaigning to win in June so we can build on that record and deliver what the voters want in Europe.

And the case for Conservative MEPs is all the more pressing when you examine the records of the other parties' MEPs.

First, Labour. We know how Labour MEPs broke their election promise, backed the renamed EU Constitution and tried to deny the British people any say on it. It may be no surprise that they backed the handover of £7 billion of our rebate without concessions in return. But just as the sheer extent of their casual disregard for taxpayers' money in Britain has been revealed this week, they have been equally careless with public money in Brussels. Labour MEPs have voted again and again for the EU to spend more: for higher EU spending on the Lisbon Treaty, on EU political parties, EU buildings and EU think tanks as well as the establishment of an EU Gender Institute and a dedicated EU tax. There is no evidence that the interests of the taxpayer have ever entered their heads.

And when the businessman or the NHS doctor or the fireman complains to you about the EU red tape strangling their organisation the odds are that Labour MEPs will have backed it. They voted for the tougher rules on agency workers, estimated by the CBI to cost up to 250,000 jobs, and worst of all they have been in the lead in making the case for scrapping the opt out from the Working Time Directive, which would deny people the chance to earn more by working overtime, cripple businesses, cause massive problems for our fire services and menace peoples' lives by the difficulties it would pose for doctors' training.

Then there are the Lib Dems. It is true: they are the most fanatically federalist party in Britain. They didn't just back the renamed Constitution, they're campaigning for us to join the euro and they've voted for not just £7 billion of our rebate to go but for all of it to be scrapped. They've called for more EU control over asylum and immigration, EU embassies and even a harmonised EU company tax. That is what Lib Dem MEPs spend their time doing. They are lucky their voters tend not to know about it, but whenever they rear their heads in the next few weeks you might want to change that.

And lastly, UKIP. Never have such a bunch of incompetents, elected allegedly to defend Britain's interests, let down their constituents so badly. Who were the only British MEPs to vote to let French and Spanish vessels fish in more of our waters? UKIP. Who were the only British MEPs to vote against trade mark protection for products like Newcastle Brown Ale or Stilton Cheese? UKIP. They've voted against free trade and for more EU regulations. They have been truly useless.

Only the Conservatives have consistently advanced this country's interests in Europe. Only the Conservatives have consistently stood up for change in Europe.

We now need a strong Conservative team in the European Parliament to do their utmost over the next five years to ensure that the European Union moves in the direction of our modern vision of Europe: an EU that looks out to the rest of the world, not in on itself, and builds strong and open relationships with rising powers like India, China and Brazil; an EU that tries to open up markets, reduce barriers to trade and leads the fight against global poverty at a time of rising protectionism; a Europe that does not rest in its efforts to set an example to the world in tackling climate change; that believes in a strong transatlantic relationship at the same time as bringing young democracies into its own strengthening ranks; a Europe of nation states, working together but never forgetting the importance of their own national democracies.

A vision of a Europe in which we are in Europe, but not run by Europe.

And so on June 4th every British voter has the chance to vote for change in Brussels. On the same day in county councils across England they have the chance to vote for change in council chambers where sensible Conservative councillors who believe in local efficiency and value for money can take charge. These elections even on their own would therefore be of great importance.

But this time they are of even greater moment, for within twelve months the Prime Minister who has run for so long from the verdict of the voters will have nowhere left to run or hide. Within a year from now, we must fight and win the most important electoral contest since 1979.

Sitting opposite the Cabinet on budget day, last Wednesday, was a revealing experience. On a day they announced they would borrow as much in the next two years as all the previous governments in the whole of  our history, they looked and sounded  utterly bereft of the energy and ideas needed to rescue our country: less of a 'range of exhausted volcanoes', as Disraeli once described the Gladstone cabinet, and more of a decomposing political muckheap. The Conservatives will once again have to clean up this rotting mess; we will once again pick up where a government that has run out of everyone else's money has left off, and rebuild the prosperity and position of our country.  

And the man sitting next to me, who then rose to speak so superbly, not just for the opposition but for Britain, is the man who as Prime Minister will lead that rebuilding, that routemap for recovery. This country needs change. It needs David Cameron as its Prime Minister, and it needs the Conservative Party.

Our job is to make sure, that on 4th June, the election of so many superb Conservative candidates brings Britain nearer  to having David Cameron as its Prime Minister, and having the change it so urgently and desperately needs.

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