CONSERVATIVE MP James Wharton last night defended his controversial decision to push forward a Bill on an EU referendum – insisting it was what many people in the North-East wanted.
The Stockton South MP hit back at criticism that he had picked a Tory obsession, of little interest to his constituents, saying: “I’m proud to have the chance to give people a say.”
And he fiercely rejected claims he was already looking to a future beyond his marginal seat, adding: “I’m entirely committed to Stockton South. I get stuck in.”
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Mr Wharton spoke after being thrust – at the age of 29 – into the national spotlight, after he won the annual backbench ballot for the chance to sponsor his own legislation.
Normally low key, the draw was electrified by David Cameron’s announcement that he would throw his weight behind a Bill paving the way for a poll on whether the UK should quit the EU.
When Mr Wharton’s name was pulled out – one day after he told The Northern Echo he would vote ‘out’, given the chance tomorrow – one delighted Tory tweeted: “God must be a Eurosceptic!”
Within two hours, after talks with No.10, he announced: “I will be bringing forward a Bill to give people a say on our membership and hope that MPs from across the political divide will support me.”
The prime minister quickly announced that all Conservative MPs would be ordered to back the Bill – with Labour and Liberal Democrats whipped to oppose it.
It sets the scene for a tumultuous Commons showdown, on Friday July 5, with the result on a knife-edge, if – as expected – some minor parties side with the Tories.
A victory for the Stockton South MP will trigger many months of Parliamentary debate on the hotly-fought issue, which has rocketed up the political agenda in recent months.
Although the Bill is still odds-on to be ‘talked out’ at some later stage, the controversy is likely to transform Mr Wharton into a household name.
If successful, the Bill would set in law Mr Cameron’s commitment to a referendum before the end of 2017 – unless the next Government repeals the legislation.
Mr Wharton’s decision sparked a furious reaction from North-East Labour MPs, who accused him of missing a golden chance to bolster economic growth and jobs – the number one priority.
Tom Blenkinsop, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, pointed out Mr Wharton had criticised the Tories for “spending so much time discussing EU to the exclusion of other important things”.
And he said: “I find it remarkable that he now says “it's about time” - on a Bill he didn't draft, for a referendum in 2017.”
And Durham North MP Kevan Jones added: “He’s doing this because it will help persuade Tory activists to give him a safe seat elsewhere, when he loses his seat in Stockton South.”
But Mr Wharton said he, like many people, was too young to remember the last referendum on Europe – way back in 1975 – with another long overdue.
He said he quickly made up his mind, pointing to the “expectation from colleagues” that whomever won the ballot would pick up the EU Bill.
And he argued that only the chance to finally draw a line under the long-running sore of a vote on Europe would allow the Conservatives to focus on bread-and-butter issues.
Mr Wharton told The Northern Echo: “I’m absolutely aware that not everybody lives and breathes the European Union, and our relationship with it, day-to-day.
“But the issue does matter to a significant number of my constituents, as well as being a matter of huge public debate. I’m proud to have the chance to give people a say.”
The MP also slapped down allegations of looking to a future elsewhere, saying: “You’ve only got to pick up an edition of The Northern Echo to see I’m entirely committed to Stockton South.
“Whether it’s rising parking charges in Yarm, trying to secure a new secondary school in Ingleby Barwick, or securing the future of Thornaby Town Hall, I think people will say I get stuck in.”
Rejecting Labour MPs’ claims that his Bill was “irrelevant”, he said: “Does that mean he will be staying in the North-East on July 5, instead of going to Westminster to vote?”