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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.