David Cameron has dismissed fears that uncertainty over Britain’s future in the European Union could threaten hundreds of jobs in the North East.
Speaking to the Journal as he prepared for the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister insisted firms actually welcomed his pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership after the next election.
It follows the warning earlier this year from Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, that Nissan could slash investment in its flagship North East car factory if Britain quits the EU.
Mr Clegg revealed Nissan bosses said their £420m investment in the Sunderland plant, which is expected to create more than 2,000 jobs including 1,500 in the supply chain, was only possible because of EU membership.
But from Downing Street, the Prime Minister insisted plans for a referendum actually made investment more secure.
He said: “Of course I understand people’s concerns. What I would say is the way to end uncertainty about Britain’s position is to secure a negotiation in our interests and then have a referendum and secure our future in a reformed European Union.
“That is the that is the right thing for business, the right thing for Britain and that is why I’m doing it.”
Highlighting his visit to the Sunderland factory, where he attended the official launch of production the electric LEAF vehicle, he said: “If you look at what Nissan, Honda, Toyota are actually doing, I am very encouraged they are building their new models in Britain, they are investing in Britain, they are employing more people in Britain.
“I was very struck on my last visit to Nissan they are choosing not only the Nissan LEAF to be built in Britain but also future models as well.
“So I’m confident that we can secure the future that these companies want.
“This plan of re-negotiation and then a referendum, I think business understands that having a plan brings more certainty than not having a plan.”
Mr Cameron also insisted he remained firmly committed to building a new North-South rail line despite criticism of the project, also known as High Speed Two or HS2. Ministers and the rail industry insist a new network is needed because existing rail lines are running out of capacity, but there has been criticism of the estimated £50.1bn cost, which includes £16.1bn in contingency funding and £5.8bn for new trains.
Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, suggested at Labour’s conference last week that Labour might prefer to spend the money on other things.
Mr Cameron said: “On HS2, we will be making the case very strongly for it. The rest of the world is adopting high speed rail technology. We should be doing the same.”
The rail network needed extra capacity, he said.
“So our real choice as a country is do we build an old-style Victorian railway, or do we build one of the new high speed railways? It seems to me absolutely right to choose the high speed version.
“And all those people who are worried about the costs of this investment – in the next Parliament, 2015 to 2020, we will be spending more than three times much on other rail and transport projects as we will be spending on HS2, including £37bn on other parts of the railway.”
But in what might be a sign that he hopes to maintain – or rebuild – a cross-party consensus in favour of the line, Mr Cameron declined to criticise Labour for its lack of support for the project.
“I don’t believe Labour in the end will go wobbly on it because they will be completely turning their backs on the North of England...so I don’t believe they’ll do it but be in no doubt my enthusiasm is not dented in any way and we are going to re-thrash the argument for HS2.”
The Prime Minister said the Conservative conference would be a chance to set out why the country should elect a Conservative Government at the next election – with enough MPs to govern alone, rather than in coalition.
“We will have a very clear message which is that we are for hard working people.
“We are on the side of people who work hard, who want to build a good life for themselves and their families and communities, and if you play by the rules and work hard you should be rewarded rather than punished.
“I think we will be able to demonstrate to people that this country is on the right track. The economy is turning the corner. There’s absolutely no complacency but we want to finish the job.
“Finishing the job means securing a recovery for all, making sure those people who work hard want to contribute feel this is a recovery for them.”
“We can do even more, even better in a Conservative majority government.”
The conference is expected to include announcements of policies to help ensure the benefits of the recovery are shared.
But Mr Cameron dismissed the key measure outlined by Labour leader Ed Miliband at his conference – a 17-month freeze on fuel bills to help people struggling with the cost of living.
Instead, he said that investing in “unconventional gas”, a reference to shale gas obtained through fracking, would lead to lower fuel prices.
“What we need in our country is low competitive energy prices, not for 20 months but for 20 years. We need to access the new technologies like unconventional gas that will help keep prices down.”