Only a coward would deny the people their voice on Europe

But if you do, then you will certainly want to vote Labour at the next election. If you want to keep the EU exactly as it is — vote Labour. If you want to do nothing to improve Britain’s relations with the EU — vote Labour. If you’re scared of a negotiation — vote Labour. If you’re frightened of the verdict of the people — vote Labour. If you want to keep the whole gourmandising Michelin-starred expense-account conspiracy away from anything so horrid as democratic scrutiny — vote Labour.

I was amazed when Ed Miliband announced last Wednesday that the Labour Party was ruling out a referendum. I don’t know whether his response to David Cameron’s speech was long-meditated — like the speech itself — or whether it was a kneejerk thing.

Either way, he has blown it big time. He has painted himself into a corner. He has entered a lobster pot, and he is going to find it hard to back out with any kind of dignity — though I have no doubt that he will soon begin to try.

His position, first, is so flagrantly and absurdly anti-democratic. Plenty of countries have had referendums — but not Britain. The French, the Dutch, the Danes, the Irish — they have all been apparently grown-up and well-informed enough to be allowed to vote on a European treaty. We haven’t been allowed to say yes or no to the EU since 1975. We were teased and then disappointed over the Lisbon Treaty, when a cast-iron promise proved to be legally impossible to deliver.

Now is the moment: because it is quite clear that the EU is evolving into something very different from what we joined. The institutions we pay for — the Commission, Council, parliament, court etc — are being used to support the creation of a federal state: the fiscal union that is deemed necessary to save the single currency. That was not on the agenda in 1975. It is entirely right that we should have a renegotiation and then put the result to the people — and the weakness of Ed Miliband’s position is that the so-called People’s Party will do anything to keep the people out of the discussion. Worse still, his do-nothing posture is complacent.

Look at the global economy: America is on the verge of a recovery; China is growing at 8 per cent. There is one great area of low pressure, one zone of gloom and despond — and it is the old and greying continent of Europe.

The problem is not just the dreadful procrustean bed of the euro. As David Cameron rightly said — quoting Angela Merkel — the problem is the whole shape of the European economy, an area that has 7 per cent of global population, 20 per cent of global GDP, and must raise 50 per cent of global social spending.

Surely to goodness there must be scope for reforming the EU and helping it to become more competitive. A lot of these extra non-wage costs are contrived at the Brussels level — and when Britain calls for reform we find support from around the table, from Germany, from Scandinavia, and from Holland — among others.

It is, finally, utter cowardice of Miliband to refuse to allow Britain the chance to improve things — to get a better deal for Britain and Europe. He pretends to be nervous that Britain would leave the EU, and that the people — them again! — would be so irresponsible as to say no to whatever new treaty was produced.

As it happens, I think most people would want to stay in the single market, and that that is the most likely outcome. But it is also clear that the world has changed unimaginably in the past 40 years; that Britain’s destiny is to build links with the BRICs and other emerging markets, as well as Europe and the US. Provided we protected free trade — in the EU interest as much as in ours — I am not sure exit would be quite the catastrophe some people claim.

Miliband has ruled out a referendum not because he cares about the UK or Europe, but because he wants to avoid the kind of split that sunk Labour in the 1970s and 1980s. It won’t work. He will either do a humiliating U-turn, or go into the election with a suicidal commitment to ignore the British people. Britain, and Europe, deserve better.

Davos 2013: Boris Johnson tells it on the mountain

Mr Johnson is soon to publish his 2020 vision for London, a collection of policies designed to make the city more attractive to business and global investment. “The vision we have for London is a city that is not just a world leader in finance or arts and culture. I want London to be a scientific and technical capital, too, with more spin-off businesses from universities. We must talk about enterprise – not austerity.”

Big spending on infrastructure is key to this plan, with a second Crossrail across the capital, longer tube lines and more river crossings. There must be a swift solution to the capacity crunch above Britain’s skies and a new hub airport. He considers expanding Stansted just as viable as building a new airport in the Thames estuary, aided by a sovereign wealth fund from China or another developing world economy.

“You just have to chuck a snowball into a cocktail party at Davos and you’d hit someone with a sovereign wealth fund who would fund a piece of infrastructure like that,” he says.

He is less ebullient about the Government’s proposed HS2 rail link between London and the North. He says he is “very worried” about how the existing tube lines will cope with the extra human traffic and impact on the suburbs.

“This vision is about making us open to the global economy, with low taxes, a 24-hour hub airport and sensible visa rules.”

But hang on, doesn’t his pitch fly in the face of the plans unveiled last week by David Cameron to offer an in-out referendum? Some well-known business leaders – including Sir Richard Branson and Sir Martin Sorrell – have expressed fears that Britain’s future in the single market will “create damaging uncertainty for British business”. Labour have echoed these concerns, warning that plans for a possible exit from the EU will be a drain on inward investment to the UK.

Mr Johnson teases businessmen with such worries. “Obviously, if businesses had their own way, they would get rid of all democratic consultations,” he says. “That way there would be no danger of Labour getting in and whacking up taxes, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to abolish general elections.

“Britain is the most flexible place to invest. Is the tax rate right? Is the workforce competitive and well-skilled? Is the logistical stuff good? Is the crime rate low? We can say yes to all those questions. That’s the real certainty business want.”

He argues that the EU has changed “out of sight” since the last referendum in 1975 and there is clear public appetite for such a vote now. “It’s high time the people were consulted,” he says.

Mr Johnson has stern words for the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who last week said that Britain is behaving like someone who joins a football club and promptly demands to play rugby. It’s a sentiment shared by many European politicians who accuse Britain of trying to morph the EU into “à la carte” or “pick and mix” union.

“What utter nonsense! We joined a football club where a minority of the members are now trying to play a peculiar game of their own which is going very wrong. And they are making up the rules as they go along.”

He is referring to the closer fiscal integration of the eurozone economies. His position is at odds with that of Mr Cameron and George Osborne, who feel that such a “big bazooka” solution is the only way to solve the eurozone’s debt crisis.

Mr Johnson clearly signals that he will vote to leave the EU if Britain’s relationship with the single market remains unchanged. “I will vote yes if we get the right deal, but obviously logically I can’t rule out voting no.”

So how many powers need to be repatriated for him to vote for Britain to stay in the single market? He sets out three targets: employment regulations, fisheries policy and the EU social chapter.

In fact, he thinks Britain is unlikely to leave the single market.

He argues that Germany, Holland and some Scandinavian countries share UK concerns about how the EU has changed and will be willing to grant concessions. “We’ve got plenty of friends in Europe who still want us as a powerful voice to speak up for reform,” he says, adding that allowing Britain some leeway will also “be a relief” for other European countries.

“If they give Britain a deal we are happy with, they won’t have to endure the misery of us constantly complaining about things in the future.”

To underline his point, he cites Neelie Cruz, an EU commissioner who raised the prospect of introducing Europe-wide regulation of newspapers while at the Davos summit.

“Donnez-Moi un break – as we used to say in Brussels,” roars Mr Johnson. “Who does she think she’s kidding? We’ve got this poor man Leveson wrapping a towel round his head trying to work out how on earth you should regulate the press at a national level. Now there’s someone in Brussels trying to do the same.”

Yet it appears too late to renegotiate one edict from Brussels that is alarming many in this country. From December, Britain will have to open its borders to any Romanians and Bulgarians who want to settle here.

Mr Johnson says this “unquestionably poses problems” for London, which already has what he describes as “massive pressures” on housing and school places.

“In an ideal world, we would have a points system or way of making sure those who are coming here are economically active and not a drain on resources,” says Mr Johnson. “We need to think about this – especially considering the underestimate in the number of people who came from Poland and the other accession countries the last time.”

Official estimates now suggest that somewhere between one and two million eastern Europeans came to Britain after migration restrictions from Poland and seven other European countries were relaxed in 2004. The Home Office had initially expected 13,000.

However, there seems little the Coalition can do to stop a large influx this time.

“It is worth a conversation and it is worth thinking about,” he says, arguing that taking some steps to check this type of immigration might assuage some Eurosceptics.

He argues that uncontrolled immigration is “one of the things that has most unnerved” the British about Europe, and that doing something about this might make the British public more likely to vote to remain in the EU.

Amid the weighty discussions of Davos, Mr Johnson did find time to enjoy a dinner on Thursday evening with the Prime Minister and Mr Osborne. Onlookers said the trio were in high spirits – a fact that offended some commentators, as the trio might have been aware that official data awaiting release the next morning would confirm that the economy shrank during the final three months of last year.

“Well, I would say I didn’t stay long… I had to go and meet the Malaysian prime minister,” says Mr Johnson, who didn’t, in fact, know the GDP numbers.

“But it was not opulent – and not paid for by the taxpayer. It was a very jolly evening. And fairly raucous, yes.”

Thank goodness the new Serious Boris retains a sense of fun.

It’s snowing, and it really feels like the start of a mini ice age

But I am also an empiricist; and I observe that something appears to be up with our winter weather, and to call it “warming” is obviously to strain the language. I see from the BBC website that there are scientists who say that “global warming” is indeed the cause of the cold and snowy winters we seem to be having. A team of Americans and Chinese experts have postulated that the melting of the Arctic ice means that the whole North Atlantic is being chilled as the floes start to break off — like a Martini refrigerated by ice cubes.

I do not have the expertise to comment on the Martini theory; I merely observe that there are at least some other reputable scientists who say that it is complete tosh, or at least that there is no evidence to support it. We are expecting the snow and cold to go on for several days, and though London transport has coped very well so far, with few delays or cancellations, I can’t help brooding on my own amateur meteorological observations. I wish I knew more about what is going on, and why. It is time to consult once again the learned astrophysicist, Piers Corbyn.

Now Piers has a very good record of forecasting the weather. He has been bang on about these cold winters. Like JMW Turner and the Aztecs he thinks we should be paying more attention to the Sun. According to Piers, global temperature depends not on concentrations of CO2 but on the mood of our celestial orb. Sometime too bright the eye of heaven shines, said Shakespeare, and often is his gold complexion dimmed. That is more or less right. There are times in astronomical history when the Sun has been churning out more stuff — protons and electrons and what have you — than at other times. When the Sun has plenty of sunspots, he bathes the Earth in abundant rays.

When the solar acne diminishes, it seems that the Earth gets colder. No one contests that when the planet palpably cooled from 1645 to 1715 — the Maunder minimum, which saw the freezing of the Thames — there was a diminution of solar activity. The same point is made about the so-called Dalton minimum, from 1790 to 1830. And it is the view of Piers Corbyn that we are now seeing exactly the same phenomenon today.

Lower solar activity means – broadly speaking – that there is less agitation of the warm currents of air from the tropical to the temperate zones, so that a place like Britain can expect to be colder and damper in summer, and colder and snowier in winter. “There is every indication that we are at the beginning of a mini ice age,” he says. “The general decline in solar activity is lower than Nasa’s lowest prediction of five years ago. That could be very bad news for our climate. We are in for a prolonged cold period. Indeed, we could have 30 years of general cooling.”

Now I am not for a second saying that I am convinced Piers is right; and to all those scientists and environmentalists who will go wild with indignation on the publication of this article, I say, relax. I certainly support reducing CO2 by retrofitting homes and offices – not least since that reduces fuel bills. I want cleaner vehicles.

I am speaking only as a layman who observes that there is plenty of snow in our winters these days, and who wonders whether it might be time for government to start taking seriously the possibility — however remote — that Corbyn is right. If he is, that will have big implications for agriculture, tourism, transport, aviation policy and the economy as a whole. Of course it still seems a bit nuts to talk of the encroachment of a mini ice age.

But it doesn’t seem as nuts as it did five years ago. I look at the snowy waste outside, and I have an open mind.

It’s transport that will carry us down the road to recovery

Why did they do it? It was desperation. The idea first occurred to a London solicitor in the early 1840s, when he found himself going wild with fury in a traffic jam (“Trains in drains!” he cried, smiting his forehead). By then the population was already 2.8 million, and there was no more space for conventional overground tracks. The congestion of carriages was unbearable; the horse dung was mounting in the streets; the economic inefficiency was growing.

London was the greatest city on earth, a centre of banking, shipping, insurance and law — as it is today — and the clerks could not get to their place of work. Then came the Tube, and effectively made the modern city. By the early 20th century, electric trains had created the suburbs, and enabled the professional classes to buy homes with gardens and live within less than an hour of their offices. The great Victorian gamble had paid off.

Investment in transport infrastructure — often led by the private sector, but invariably bailed out, one way or another, by the state — had unleashed the potential for economic growth. It is the transport that enables the housing; it is the housing that enables the concentration of skilled workers that produces economic competitiveness.

We need to remember that boldness today, and we need to recreate it urgently — for the good of the whole UK economy. It is true that we are making some overdue but still phenomenal improvements in the Tube. We will soon have air-conditioning on 40 per cent of the network; the Victoria line will next week go up to a record 33 trains per hour; we have put in such excellent new signalling on the Jubilee line that trains are now running three mph faster than they were four years ago (to pick a period entirely at random) and delays on the system are down 40 per cent on four years ago.

We have Crossrail’s excavations landmarking our streets, and by 2018 this project — the largest engineering project in Europe — will add 10 per cent to the rail capacity of London, on top of the 30 per cent expansion of the Tube. And none of it will be enough. Since I have been Mayor, the population of London has grown by a dizzying 600,000 — or so the census says — and we are expecting to go up by a million by 2025.

London in the 21st century looks like retaining the crown it achieved in 1800 — comfortably the most populous and commercially powerful city in western Europe. It is that extraordinary demographic pressure of nine million people that means we must have a neo-Victorian approach to transport infrastructure.

If HS2 comes into Euston — by whatever route — then we must have a Crossrail Two, from Hackney to Chelsea, to deal with the influx and also to cope with the pressure on the already straining commuter networks of south-west London. We will need to continue the improvements of the Tube — with new rolling stock on the Piccadilly line and upgrades of the Northern line; and every new train must be automatic rather than equipped with an old-fashioned driver’s cab.

We must remember that we will be able to plan and procure more cheaply if we have a steady and consistent stream of funding, and we need to learn the lesson of the terrible mistakes of the second half of the 20th century. Britain failed to invest in the transport needs of its capital, with the result that the system decayed, the economy stagnated, and the population actually declined. We allowed our docks to be replaced by Rotterdam, and we shambolically missed the chance to create a new hub airport to rival other EU capitals.

We can correct all those mistakes today, and in so doing we will put Britain on the path to sustained recovery, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and gain long-term competitive advantage. Yes, there was something nutty about the Victorians. But we need to rediscover their brilliance, their drive, and their self-belief. We should start with transport.

What a relief! The madness of child benefit for all ends today

“Boris,” she would begin, in her seductive South African tones, “what exactly is it that these people DO?” Well, I said, they were opinion-formers. They prowled the corridors of power. They sniffed the wind at Westminster and observed the movement of the animals at the watering-holes. They were the intellectual powerhouse of the paper, I said. They wrote the leaders that lit the sparks that rocked the boats that shook the very foundations of the government. They were the Myrmidons, the Imperial Guard, the crack troops of journalism… “Yes, yes,” Brenda said, and her eye skittered down a scrawled expense sheet until she found an offending item. “But why do they need to take so many taxis? Let’s say that they can’t take any more taxis, shall we?”

It must be getting on for 20 years since the first cheques started to arrive in my wife’s bank account, and I shudder to think how much it adds up to. Yes, I shudder, but I quickly do the calculations – and, as of today, and in today’s money, we have received about £47,547.40.

It would be fatuous to claim that this cash has all been spent on essentials for the kids. I can’t pretend that without this dosh they would have been deprived of bootees or SMA milk powder or scented nappy bags. Like many other families we have been able to use this astonishing state largesse – the thick end of fifty grand – on all sorts of discretionary spending. We’re looking at 10 half-decent ski holidays here, or about five luxury safaris. We could have laid down a cellarful of Chateau Lafite, or picked up an Old Master drawing, or a share of a lovely little place in Spain.

I couldn’t tell you how exactly we have blown the cash, but I feel both grateful and appalled to have profited in this way, and a sense of intellectual relief that today, the madness comes to an end. Today, like 820,000 other households, we receive our last philoprogenitive bung from the taxpayer.

I salute this heroic Conservative-led government for at last having had the courage to do the blindingly obvious. I know that some people worry about the perverse impacts of the £50,000 threshold – and yes, I suppose it is an unfairness that a household with, say, two incomes each of £49,000 could continue to get the benefit in full, while a family with a single breadwinner on £60,000 would lose it altogether. But that is the trouble with any reform of a benefits system that now costs £207 billion a year. Any reform will mean at least some losers, and wherever there are losers there will be rage and grief. That is precisely why it has taken so long for any government to grasp the nettle, and that is why benefits have risen by 20 per cent in the past 10 years, while wages have risen by only 10 per cent. Cutting a billion in welfare, as Peter Lilley once said, is cutting a thousand pounds from a million people. It takes political nerve.

What I cannot stomach at any price is the argument – I have a dim feeling that I once came across it in a Polly Toynbee column – that the point of universal benefits is to knit society together; that I and other members of the affluent bourgeoisie will be more inclined to support the welfare state if we are the beneficiaries of welfare.

Let me ask: how in hell does it help me express my feelings of sympathy and solidarity with those on lower incomes if I take money in child benefit that could go on cutting the taxes of the poor and helping them to put bread on the table for their families?

If you had told Sir William Beveridge in 1948 that his successors would have produced a welfare system so irrelevant to the needs of its recipients that relatively well-off families could be creaming off almost fifty grand, from the state, to cover the cost of child care – well, I think he would have said you were round the bend. We don’t need universal child benefit; we need universal tax cuts. Well done, Iain Duncan Smith. Bravo, George Osborne and hooray for David Cameron, and let’s have some more of the same!