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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.