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'If We Lose This Referendum Campaign, Then I'm F****d and I'll Resign'

27/06/2016 07:53 | Updated 27 June 2016
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

"If we lose this referendum campaign then I'm f****d and I'll resign".

As Conservative Party Chairman I was one of a small number who attended twice daily meetings in the Prime Minister's No10 study for two and half years up until the last election. As a result, I became familiar with David Cameron's direct, often candid approach. Nonetheless, I was still taken aback by his rather brutal assessment, made at the midpoint of the referendum campaign.

This was the first time I'd been back in the PM's study since last year's General Election. Cameron was eager to gather Remain support from the handful of Tory MPs who had yet to declare, of which I was one. Slipping back into my old Party spokesman role, I was momentarily tempted to make light of his blunt, blue and unpublishable expletive by joking about whether this was his new 'Line To Take'. But before I had the chance, he continued, "The reality of this referendum is that if the outcome is leave, then I'll have no choice but to resign."

So when David Cameron emerged from the front door of No10 Friday morning, I was already clear that he was about to announce his resignation. As he put it, "I do not think I can be the captain to take the country to its next destination."

As it happens, the day before, I had voted Remain. Not through any love of the EU. In fact, their endless meddling - often in quite minor domestic policy - used to drive me crazy as a Minister. I can recall numerous occasions where officials would present me with a decision, only to add a footnote instructing me that "Your answer must be yes Minister, otherwise the EU may commence Infraction Proceedings". I would occasionally scribble back, "Please tell me, what is the point in having Ministers of the Crown if the decisions have already been taken elsewhere?" Naturally these frustrated box note comments always went unanswered.

And so it was through somewhat gritted teeth that I voted Remain last Thursday, largely because I reckoned that the process of EU divorce, the potential lack of European market access and the general upheaval to the British economy, probably added up to more than the sum of my frustration about overbearing petty EU laws.

However, on balance, the British people are sufficiently fed up with EU meddling that last Thursday they did order a new destination for HMS Britain. And whilst that decision means that we will lose the natural advantage of automatic market access to Europe, on the plus side, in the future we will no longer need to worry about those 'infraction proceedings', because our law will once again reign supreme.

And whilst I may not have voted to Leave, I believe that our task as elected representatives on the governing side, is not only to make the best of the hand we now have to play, but to turn this newfound freedom to our positive advantage.

I think there are three things that need to happen next.

First, we need to become the world's greatest trading nation in order to provide our citizens or perhaps that should be Her Majesty's Subjects once again, with the kind of public services they deserve. To get there we need to top the chart as the best place in the world to do business and rediscover the spirit of export once again.

During the coalition government the Prime Minister used to chair meetings in the Cabinet Room where we would sit around discussing ideas that might free up British business in order to allow expansion and new jobs. This process took each sector in turn and looked for red-tape to tear up. Needless to say, sometimes that enterprise blocking bureaucracy didn't come from Whitehall, it emanated from Brussels. Yet we were of course completely powerless to remove it. So I suggest that a new administration begins by restarting that Red Tape Challenge process and this time we identify all the pettifogging EU rules which we can soon jettison in order to help make Britain the world's best place to do business.

Second, a lot was made of immigration during the Referendum campaign. I found this debate neither honest nor enlightening. It was one of the reasons why I didn't back the Leave campaign. Promises to get immigration down to the tens-of-thousands has, in my view, never been remotely realistic. It was never likely when David Cameron said it. It's no more believable when it comes from the Leave camp and, as I'll describe, it may not even be desirable. Either way it is probably less likely today than it has ever been in the past, despite Thursday's momentous vote.

Whatever your views on immigration, we actually require some of it to achieve our national goals. Brits actually need the world's best surgeons, doctors, scientists and businesspeople, not just those who happen to have been born here. We've have always had 'control' of immigration from outside of Europe, yet even here we have been unable to get the numbers down to the illusive tens-of-thousands. That is because zero immigration would be incompatible with our national prosperity objective. I know that this is an uncomfortable truth and yes it does put strain on services like schools, hospitals and housing. Whilst I welcome the idea that we will soon be able to set our own Aussie style points system, we must also be completely straight with the public. Not only will very low levels of immigration prove virtually impossible in today's interconnected world, but it would also prevent us from succeeding globally, particularly now we need to expand our horizons well beyond Europe. So let's have a sensible points based immigration system, but let's not pretend it will reduce immigration to the arbitrary tens-of-thousands. It won't, not without damaging our economic prospects.

Third, we will require a real sense of renewed vision and leadership for this country. David Cameron and the rest of us would talk about a long-term economic plan, but you would never call it an overarching vision for Britain's future. Now that we have voted to break the post-war European consensus and leave the EU, we really do need to urgently develop a full blown British vision for our place in the world in five, ten or fifty years' time.

I've already suggested we should aim to become the world's best trading nation, the Singapore or Hong Kong of Europe perhaps, or maybe a European version of Israel when it comes to exploiting and exporting technology. In my opinion we should urgently slash Corporation Tax further, as a clear signal that we are open for business and I've already talked about how we can now go much further in cutting red-tape. We should make it our national objective to become the largest economy in Europe within, say, the next twenty years. Because it is only through growing our economy and overtaking our competition that we can fulfil the legitimate aspirations of our voters.

These are all worthy objectives that we can reach, but it is going to take real vision and leadership. And that leadership won't be provided by a run-of-the-mill politician.

Prime Ministers who are primarily administrative in nature often flourish and are good for settled times in our history. But last Thursday's vote means that the United Kingdom now needs the kind of inspirational leadership that very few can actually offer. As David Cameron said, a new heading requires a new captain. That new heading involves sailing through some potentially very choppy waters, so we will need a captain with real character, plenty of foresight and the vision to carry the nation forward.

Grant Shapps is the Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield

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