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EU Referendum: Marlborough area Tories' debate on Europe reveals a firmly Brexit audience - with a few still undecided

(L to r) Tim Eliot-Cohen, Laura Sandys, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Claire Perry MP(L to r) Tim Eliot-Cohen, Laura Sandys, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Claire Perry MPThe first sign of a debate on the EU referendum in Marlborough was a Conservative event (April 28) pitching Brexit champion Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (for North East Somerset) against Laura Sandys (formerly Conservative MP for Thanet, Chair of the European Movement.)

Laura Sandys was introduced to loud applause.  But the introduction for Jacob Rees-Mogg brought loud applause - and cheering.  Some might have called the contest over and gone home. They would have missed some very interesting and informative answers to some very interesting questions.

Marlborough College's Memorial Hall is a memorial to the 749 men from the College community who were killed in the 1914-1918 war which convulsed Europe - a suitable place in which to debate twenty-first century Europe.  It seats 550 and on Thursday evening it was full.  Seats were reserved for 150 sixth formers from the College and St John's Academy.

'The Europe Debate' was at the invitation of Claire Perry MP and Tim Eliot-Cohen, who chairs the Aldbourne and Ramsbury Conservative Association, and it was sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.  Tickets were free and long ago they had all been taken up - indeed Claire Perry said they could have filled the Hall four times over.

Two excerpts from the debaters' opening five minute speeches sum up the basic feelings behind the many facts and opinions they went on to expound.

Rees-Mogg: "The simple point is that the European Union has become a state - its law overrules our law...it has all the symbols - presidents, a flag, an anthem...but it is a failed state."

Sandys: "We are part of an organisation that has built long-term peace...We have benefited...there is no 'super state'...the French and Germans would not allow that...we have a deep economic zone."

The Q and A session began with an informative discussion on the process that would follow a Brexit vote.  Laura Sandys spelled out the two year negotiation period: "It's very difficult to know where we would end up." And she painted a picture of the UK trying to go from victim of the EU to conqueror of Europe overnight with some miffed governments set on making sure the UK's deal was not too good.

Jacob Rees-Mogg did not quite address the process part of the question and relied on Britain's future ability to trade with whomsoever it liked: "Individuals trade, not governments."

Later, both sides thought the EU would be reformed:  Ress-Mogg thought it would as a result of our leaving, Sandys wanted us to be in there and leading reform.  And both sides saw rocky times ahead:  Rees-Mogg looking at the likelihood of the EU hitting the rocks (as one questioner put it) and Sandys seeing the external threats surrounding security, economics and international politics.

One of the farmers in the audience was worried that once we had left the EU, the part of the money saved from our 'subscription' would not be ring-fenced to pay farm subsidies.  Jacob Rees-Mogg was optimistic: "There will be money to carry on paying farmers - but they insist it's not subsidies rather payments for the way they are told to farm the land."

Laura Sandys thought farming and food was one of the most vulnerable areas following Brexit: "We do have to start adding up how we'd spend this money.  This money has to be used extremely carefully because it would be a precarious time. We must not act as though we've won the lottery."

One questioner asked about the process of the referendum - he realised it was in part "to spike the UKIP vote" and in part to "lance the boil of the split in the Conservatives."  This brought Claire Perry to her feet: "This is not about splits in the Conservative party - I'm incredibly proud we have given people the vote."

Which recalled Laura Sandys' earlier point that if Brexiters are so worried about Parliamentary sovereignty why was our membership of the EU not decided by our representatives in Parliament?  It was, of course, a rhetorical question: because two thirds of them would vote to remain.

We nearly took a dangerous side turning when Rees-Mogg said he approved of GM crops - but went on quickly to add that it was good to have "Australian champagne just to wind up the French!"

Questions came about small businesses: they were hamstrung by regulations that were unnecessary because they did not export.  On the other hand 60 per cent of small businesses wanted to remain.   One local businessman feared for the future of his company if Brexit happened and Laura Sandys reminded us that the EU's 500 million people was the world's largest trading bloc.

There was a pertinent question about impact of Brexit on the Commonwealth, which morphed into the inevitable two and fro on immigration: "If we leave we will control immigration - we want to have fair immigration" - "The immigration issue is of great concern, but I do not think coming out will address it."

Talking about the risks of leaving and staying, Jacob Rees-Mogg defied the past weeks' headlines: "I think capitalism works and [outside the EU] if we can have a society that enhances capitalism - that's a risk worth taking."  

Summing up?  Difficult in a short space.  Sandys realised the audience was moving towards Brexit: "This country is doing well - destabilisation and a lack of clarity is a large risk."  

Rees-Mogg:  "When you go to vote there's one question: Is your nation Europe...or is your nation the United Kingdom in which case vote to leave and be proud to do it."

At a final show of hands, there were still a few left undecided for June 23.  Closing the meeting and thanking the debaters for clarifying the issues, Claire Perry told the audience: "I want you to vote with confidence so we get a decisive result."

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