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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution