The EU referendum leaflet that embarrassed Clegg

Lib Dem leader struggles to explain away election leaflet that called for a "real referendum" on EU membership.

Nick Clegg had a rough ride on the Today programme this morning after presenter Justin Webb reminded him of a Liberal Democrat election leaflet calling for an in/out referendum on the EU. Clegg is now oppposed to a vote on EU membership but not long ago he was calling for a "real referendum" and attacking Labour and the Tories for not doing the same.

The leaflet in question declared:

It's been over thirty years since the British people last had a vote on Britain's membership of the European Union.

That's why the Liberal Democrats want a real referendum on Europe. Only a real referendum on Britain's membership of the EU will let the people decide our country's future.

But Labour don't want the people to have their say.

The Conservatives only support a limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Why won't they give the people a say in a real referendum?

Asked why he no longer supported an early referendum, a tetchy Clegg pointed out that his party's election manifesto stated that an in/out referendum should only be held "the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU."

But as you'll have seen, the leaflet was less specific, simply calling for a "real referendum" and not tying this pledge to a treaty change. Indeed, it criticised the Tories for only supporting "a limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty."

As in the case of tuition fees, it's another example of a populist campaign promise that Clegg couldn't live up to. Whether eurosceptic or europhile, British voters are likely to agree on one thing: you can't trust the Lib Dems.

The leaflet row aside, most of the interview was devoted to Clegg denouncing those who argue that Britain should seek to repatriate powers from the EU. "I don't agree with the premise that we can on our own, unilaterally, simply rewrite the terms of the membership of this European club," he said. He went on to warn that the uncertainty created by a referendum pledge could have a "chilling effect on growth and jobs". Rather than vowing to bring back powers from Brussels, Clegg suggested that the government should wait to see whether a new treaty emerges and whether it impacts on Britain (something that would trigger a public vote under the coalition's "referendum lock").

Intriguingly, however, he suggested that the distance between himself and David Cameron was smaller than thought because Cameron's plan to renegotiate British membership was linked to a future treaty change. Thus, if there is no treaty change (as may well prove to be the case), there will be no renegotiation and no repatriation of powers. This is a point that Tory MPs will want reassurance on when Cameron delivers his speech on Friday.

Nick Clegg at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.