IF THE negotiations in Brussels over David Cameron’s new deal for Britain seemed interminable, they will be as nothing compared with the four-month campaign stretching between now and the in-out referendum on European Union membership on June 23.
This is a vital vote for Britain’s future, a chance to settle an issue that has divided the country for decades, so it is crucial that voters understand the issues at stake and make an informed decision on where this nation’s destiny lies.
Yet the length of the campaign, and the uninformative way in which the debate has been conducted so far, suggests that, by June 23, far from being enlightened and energised, many voters are more likely to be bored and confused.
The Prime Minister has clearly battled hard in his attempts to win a good deal for Britain from his European counterparts. Yet the end result is a far cry from the fundamental realignment of Britain’s relationship with the EU that Mr Cameron first promised.
In launching the campaign to remain in the EU, the Prime Minister says that Britain will now be protected from ever closer union and safeguarded from many forthcoming regulations, a tangible example of this new freedom being the four-year break on the right of EU migrants to claim tax credits.
But these achievements are far less than many hoped for and, crucially, they come laden with caveats and are not backed by treaty change.
As a result, much of what the Prime Minister has achieved is dependent on little more than promises, so it is hardly surprising that it has been greeted with some scepticism.
But if Mr Cameron and his supporters are to counter this, they must now dispense with their strategy of depicting exit from the EU as a leap in the dark which places Britain on a perilous path to an unknown future.
If they are to win the referendum, their best chance surely depends on mounting a campaign based on hope rather than fear. Over the next four months, they must clearly set out the benefits of staying with Brussels and show why, in the Prime Minister’s words, this will ensure that Britain is “safer, stronger and better off”.
But if the campaign to remain has so far been disappointing, the Brexit campaign has been even worse, its various groups mired in internecine squabbling and its would-be leaders competing to see who can shout the loudest while actually saying very little.
The public is desperate for clear information. It needs to know how Britain would cope outside the EU, how it would forge its own trade deals, what its relation with the single market would be and what the future would look like for industry and agriculture.
With the Government basing its entire campaign on the idea that life outside the EU would be a frightening mystery, it is up to the Brexit backers to pull themselves together and explain to the public why this would not be the case.
For it will be a long campaign indeed if the two sides cannot bring clarity and wisdom to the debate over the next four months. There is a vitally important decision to be made and the voters must have as much accurate information as possible.
The public may not be greatly enthused by the finer details of the European debate, but they are not fools and nor should they be treated as such.
Inspired move: Firms decide to head North
FOR THOSE who feared that the North-South divide was growing steadily wider, there is heartening news in the latest research by the London Stock Exchange Group.
According to its new report, 1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain, 78 per cent of the most rapidly growing firms are based outside London, with Leeds joint second to Greater Manchester as the area in which these companies are establishing their headquarters.
It is this type of small-to-medium firm with high growth potential that is providing the engine-room for Britain’s economic recovery and, if Yorkshire’s economy is to stay on track, it is important that it attracts precisely this kind of dynamic enterprise.
That it is doing so is testament to the efforts made by politicians and business leaders to attract investment and entrepreneurship, but there is no cause for complacency.
In a dynamic economy such as Britain’s, with ever fiercer competition between regions, it is crucial, if Yorkshire is to build on its commercial advantage, for the region to be given more and more freedom to make its own decisions on attracting inward investment. In other words, regional leaders need to complete a devolution deal as quickly as possible. There is no time to waste.