"Cameron is an arrogant PR man, the UK will leave the EU and prosper!"
Senior UKIP MEP and ex-Tory Roger Helmer on why the UK will soon march out of the EU
You could hardly find someone in the European Parliament as forthright and independent-minded as Roger Helmer.
He has been more than happy to let rip over issues that irk him, even if it led to his suspension on one occasion during his 13-year service as a Tory member of the European Parliament.
The 68-year old Helmer has got a wealth of experience to draw on from outside politics, having been in business for over 30 years. This saw him work for firms like Procter & Gamble and Readers Digest, in locations including Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.
I meet up with Helmer on Friday 18th January, when Prime Minister David Cameron was billed to give his long-awaited speech on Britain’s place in the European Union (and is now set to do so this Wednesday).
The venue for our chat? The MEPs’ swish pad, Europe House, just down the road from Westminster in Smith Square. It used to be the base of Conservative HQ (“Conservative Central Office”), home for the Tories under Thatcher, Major and all the way up until 2007. Helmer quips:
“I find coming here poignant considering that it was the sight of successsive Margaret Thatcher election victories and it now happens to be the home of the occupying forces!”
Helmer is just warming up though, as conversation moves to the Tories, UKIP and the EU…
What are your thoughts after seeing the extracts released so far of Cameron’s speech?
The European Union is failing. People say we’re sleepwalking to the exit – no we’re not! We’re marching purposefully to it with our eyes open! We know the majority of the British people want to leave.
The Conservative position has always been that they must protect the single market status of the European Union, I was guilty of this myself 10 years ago.This shows a rather naïve thinking. They think of it broadly as a free trade area, but it’s not, first because it’s a customs union – an old-fashioned, inefficient 19th century obsolence and a suboptimal business model. It is fine for Bismarck, it’s not fine for 2013. Nobody else in the world, apart from a couple of very minor countries, has a customs union… everybody sensible has free trade areas!
“The EU model is an old-fashioned and inefficient 19th century obsolence”
The second thing is it’s not just a customs union! Sub-optimal as that is, it is a customs union piled up with masses of gross overregulation.
Of course, in a modern economy you have to have regulation. We know that. The fact is that you go and talk to business, and I did 30 odd years in busines before politics, and they are just overwhelmed by the level of regulation. The NHS is being ruined by the working time directive, there is example after example.
Richard Branson and other business leaders warned against any distancing from against the EU, would you disagree?
I’m happy to place myself against Richard Branson!
Of course the pro-European side have managed to get a few big names. We’ve got Simon Wolfson from Next and others who take a different view. We’ve got research among SMEs showing that double the percentage would like less engagement with Europe as would like more engagement.
One thing the EU does quite well with successive regulation is it offers large companies barriers to entry for new players.
There is a cosy status quo that the big companies can cope with. I think there are lots of things they should worry about that are wrong but nevertheless they would rather have that than creating a more open, free-for-all entrepreneurial society.
It’s strange that Branson should be against an entrepreneurial society because he is a prize entrepreneur. He has now reached that mature stage where he perhaps doesn’t want to see the competition…
Has Branson lost touch with what it’s like to be an entrepreneur?
He has lost touch with what it’s like to be a small company, coping with VAT Returns.
When we were in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, people like Richard Branson and [Business for New Europe head] Roland Rudd came along and said ‘if we leave the ERM, it’ll be a disaster!” Then there was the opportunity to join the Euro, ‘if we don’t join the Euro, we’ll lose inward investment!’…Does anybody say that now? It’s exactly the same for the third time. They’re saying ‘unless we have more Europe, we’re in trouble!”, but the answer is “No, more Europe is trouble! We want less Europe!”
“Branson has lost touch…”
There’s a very good paper by Tim Congdon who has done an estimate of the total cost of British membership. That is not just the £50m a day that we’re always talking about, which is only the budget contribution. The biggest single element is the regulatory cost. Add the whole thing up and it comes to £150bn a year.
When people say to me as they frequently do – what about the costs of leaving the EU? I say to hell with the cost of leaving the EU, what about the cost of staying in? It’s a vast economic burden!
When we leave and I think we will leave, what are we going to see? Obviously we’re not going to get rid of regulation overnight but over two or three years we’ll dismantle the bits we don’t need and we’ll have a massive saving. We will be better off as a country, I think we’ll get more growth, we’ll get more jobs, lower energy prices, lower taxes and we’ll have a more flexible labour market.
Why do you say ‘when and not if’ the UK leaves?
There has been a massive change in public and media perception that is reflected in the extraordinary polling results that UKIP is getting. That is only one symptom of it, it is much broader than that.
How soon could we be leaving the EU? Decades?
Forecasting is a mug’s game. I think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. If you want to guess how long that means, speak to my cardiologist!
There is a realistic prospect that in 5 or 10 years’ time that the situation will be radically different. The question is when do we go? I particularly need to address the car manufacturers because for some reason they’ve got it into their heads that when we leave – suddenly – Honda, Nissan, Jaguar and Toyota won’t be able to sell cars into the continent.
Hang on a minute, just common sense tells you that Mercedes, Audi, Renault and Citroen will actually want to sell cars in Britain. We are their largest export market, they can’t cut us off at the knees, they can’t do without us!
“We are their largest car export market, they can’t cut us off at the knees, they can’t do without us!”
The second thing is if you read the Lisbon Treaty and the other treaties, you find there is a provision for the countries to leave the EU. There are quite specific provisions requiring the institutions to reach a trade agreement with the country that leaves. There is no doubt at all that we’ll have a free trade agreement that’ll kick in immediately, if we were to use – people debate which mechanism but the obvious one is Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which gives you a period of disengagement and negotiation. As far as I can see, trade would be unaffected.
Let’s also mention one of many big lies about Europe, Miliband has been using it and Clegg has been using it.
“Three and a half million jobs depend on our membership of the EU”, I’m sure you know where it came from – the NIESR in 1999. You’d know the director of the NIESR literally the day after Robin Cook made that statement, said it was a lie worthy of Goebbels. Unfortunately pro-Europeans have been quoting it ever since.
3.5m jobs depend on the EU? A “lie worthy of Goebbels”!
The only jobs that depend on our membership of the EU is my job and EU Foreign Minister Cathy Ashton’s job. I would be very happy to lose my job and I’d be very happy to see Cathy Ashton lose hers. She is doing nothing useful at all anyway.
The idea that three and a half million jobs will be lost if we leave the EU is absolute nonsense. We want to leave the EU because we want to reengage the rest of the world where the growth is.
European Parliament head Martin Schulz fears if Britain leaves the EU, it will crumble…
I think he’s right! One of the great fears in Brussels is that Britain makes a success of leaving the EU and suddenly a number of other countries are saying – ‘well actually it works rather well!’
If the case is so logical, why doesn’t David Cameron want to leave the EU?
It wouldn’t surprise you if I say it’s because he’s arrogant. I don’t think he listens.
Cameron made up his mind a long time ago that he was a middle of the road Eurosceptic…I wouldn’t call him a Eurosceptic. Someone who says that we can see the benefits of leaving the EU but we couldn’t possibly rock the boat by leaving it, but there is a lot of hassle in the country so we can square the circle by saying we will mollify our sceptics by repatriating powers and will make things better for Britain, that way we have a solution that satisfies everybody and can forge ahead. That is their thinking. He’ll probably mention Europhiles in his party, but there are precious few.
Nigel Farage calls Cameron “bland”…
He is bland! He has alienated his party.
He’s a PR man, he looks like a PR man, he behaves like a PR man. Cameron did two or three years in a PR company but apart from that he has gone through this really rather protected environment. He ought to spend more time in the pub, and not a gastro pub in Witney.
He has got to wake up to reality sooner or later. Our membership is going up very rapidly. We take our support from all the other parties and indeed people who are completely disillusioned with politics and have given up and don’t vote at all. It is true that in the last 18 months that there has been a growing trend for disaffected Conservatives particularly to come across to us. We’ve had councillors coming across in my region, another one coming very soon, members coming across.
“Cameron’s a PR man, he looks like a PR man, he behaves like a PR man.”
Recent research showed that 32% of those who voted Conservative in 2010 are saying they’d vote UKIP in 2014. What Conservatives are saying to me is “I’ve really had enough, he doesn’t’ listen! He doesn’t listen to us on Europe, on energy.”
Take the gay marriage issue, many Conservatives feel that it is wrong and I feel it is a perfectly intellectual and defensible position to say we’re not prejudiced against people who have a different choice of lifestyle, they can do that, they’ve even got a civil partnership but we think that history and biology, tradition and culture have established the meaning of marriage around the world. We shouldn’t tamper with that, it’s not the government’s job, which is the view I take.
The Conservatives are angry about that, I know of one senior Conservative politician who has actually said to us – “If Cameron goes ahead with that proposal, I shall leave and join UKIP”.
Would you say they coalition is out of touch with business?
Yes, Cameron has just bought the rather superficial line that EU membership is good for trade, jobs and business. He hasn’t thought that through.
Much of what George Osborne has tried to do to cut the deficit makes sense; it’s very cautious and timid. We talk about cuts but there aren’t any cuts! The budget is going up, the deficit is going up.
I know that individual people are suffering, and that’s because more and more money is going into interest payments and less is available for other purposes. In terms of getting a grip, the national debt is going up year by year and their best ambition is to try and stop it by 2017 or whenever it is. Those things are right although they’re slow and cautious. What is missing is the massive drive for growth. What we ought to be doing is making life easier for business.
People have talked about a national insurance holiday for new hires, or target it at young people and have it for young new hires. It probably would be almost self-financing because you wouldn’t be paying them welfare, just losing the national insurance. Things like that would have an effect.
Do you feel like you’re on your own as someone who left the Tories for UKIP?
A few of the Conservative MEPs were a bit grumpy, but only the extremists like James Elles, a dyed in the wool Europhile.
A lot of Conservatives messaged me saying they quite understood what I did. If you take a Conservative MP in his 40s and he’s got two kids in school and he’s paying school fees and a mortgage..
“I’ve got nothing to lose…!”
If he comes out now, and does a Douglas Carswell, he won’t ever get to be minister – or at least under Cameron. If he were to come across and join us, he might not get elected – or perhaps not elected again next time. I was in the privileged position in that I’m knocking on a bit, I’m well past the state retirement age…I’ve got nothing to lose.
How many MPs/MEPs are talking to UKIP about defecting?
I can’t tell you that because I’m not doing those conversations. Nigel, who is having those conversations, is extremely scrupulous.
Let me send out the message loud and clear that any Conservative who wishes to talk to UKIP will certainly have his identity protected until if, and when, he makes a decision to move.
I had been talking to Nigel probably for a year on and off, not with the intention of joining but just because we were mates in Parliament.
Why did you join UKIP and not just be an independent firebrand like Dan Hannan?
I had been doing the independent firebrand thing for a long time but the big question is to ask Dan Hannan what he’s doing because he’s completely out of sympathy with Conservative policy, but he must speak for himself.
What would it take for you to go back to the Conservatives?
There’s nothing in the Conservative Party at the moment that’d attract me back.
Let me suggest that if Cameron were replaced by John Redwood or John Hayes or Douglas Carswell and they said it was Conservative policy to offer an in-out referendum and the party would campaign for out, then there would be grounds for UKIP and the Conservatives talking. I’m not saying I’d re-join the Conservatives but we would have common ground then.