General elections are about the future, where people decide who they trust most to lead the country and deliver a secure future for their family. European elections have become a referendum on the past; a 'free hit' in Ukip's words where you can register your protest safe in the knowledge that the outcome will have no direct bearing on your quality of life.
The challenge following the European elections is about more than structural reforms and economic confidence, important though they are. It is also a challenge about the kind of society we want to build for our children. I want one where their first motivation is based on hope for what they can achieve, rather than hate at what someone else has got; where they are excited by the opportunities that exist for all in a free and open society, rather than being made fearful of malign foreign influence. As a nation we know as well, that our best days have always come when we have looked out to the world, rather than in on ourselves. To realise this we have to show that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions; we must complete our long term plan to rebuild our economy and show that real reform is possible in Europe. To borrow from William Pitt, we must save ourselves through our exertions and offer a new direction for Europe, by our example.
In so far as the European elections are about the European Union, the message is clear that growing numbers of people across the continent question its direction of travel, the power of the institutions and their remoteness from the people. The response of the Conservative Party to this challenge is that we will negotiate a package of reforms to return powers to the UK, make Europe more open and flexible, and stop people moving within the EU just to take advantage of more generous welfare benefits in other nation states. We will then hold a referendum in 2017, after this renegotiation has been concluded, to give the people the final say on whether we stay in the EU or leave. This referendum is something that only the Conservative Party will deliver; Labour and the Liberals don't want it and Ukip does not have the power to make it happen. My position on that referendum is also clear. I would support the UK staying in a reformed EU but if that's not possible, and Europe says we must accept our membership as it is now; take it or leave it; then I would say let's leave.
However, given that most people do not spend their time thinking that much about the European institutions, the elections must be about more than that. That's why calls to bring forward the referendum fail to understand the full significance of the election results. Voters in my constituency of Folkestone and Hythe voted Ukip, but just over the Channel in Boulogne, they overwhelmingly supported the National Front. Whilst communities in England and France have concerns about the future following the economic crash of a few years ago, the underlying positions of these coastal towns are very different. Unemployment in Folkestone and Hythe is now 3.6% and falling; whereas in Boulogne it's over 15%. The average hourly wage in my constituency is over £12 where as in Boulogne it is £9.
At the next general election in the UK voters will have to consider whether or not they are prepared to risk the growth in the economy, which is currently the strongest amongst the world's leading economies, by changing government, or rather let the Conservatives finish the job of getting the country back on its feet, and restoring hope and confidence once more. The only alternative to this is to go back to Labour, and whatever your interpretation of the European election results, there appears to be no great appetite for that.