When Clegg supported an EU referendum

The Lib Dem leader was in favour of an in/out referendum before he was against one.

In a desperate attempt to dissuade Tory MPs from voting in favour of a referendum on EU membership next Monday, William Hague takes to the pages of the Telegraph today. The great eurosceptic writes:

As a Conservative, I want to bring powers back from Europe, as we set out in our election manifesto. But a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, especially at this time of profound economic uncertainty, is not the answer.

It's noteworthy that all three of the main parties are now ordering their MPs to vote against the Commons motion (currently supported by 86 MPs). But here's an inconvenient truth: one of them previously supported an in/out referendum. In their 2010 election manifesto, the Lib Dems called for a national vote on Britain's EU membership. Here's the pledge in full:

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

And here's the text of the Commons motion:

That this House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should

(a) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;

(b) leave the European Union; or

(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

True, the Lib Dem pledge contains a notable caveat ("the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change") but as the Guardian's Nicholas Watt notes, that didn't stop Clegg walking out of the Commons on 26 February 2008 when the then speaker, Michael Martin, refused to call a Lib Dem amendment demanding a referendum. After Ed Davey (then the party's foreign affairs spokesman) was expelled from the chamber, Clegg said:

I share the dismay of [Ed Davey]. What guidance can [the deputy speaker] give me on how we can secure - if not today, at some point during the remaining stages of the Bill - the opportunity to debate the issue that many members want debated and many members of the public want debated: our future membership of the EU?

Davey's words were even more striking:

Will the chair reconsider the decision not to select the Liberal Democrat amendment for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU? That is the question that goes to the heart of the debate before the House. That is the debate that people want to hear. We are being gagged, Sir.

Like Keynes, the Lib Dems can argue that when the facts change, they change their mind. The holding of a referendum on Britain's EU membership is not a credible response to the current crisis. But Clegg's latest U-turn will only increase his reputation for inconsistency.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.