The EU referendum leaflet that will haunt Clegg today

As Clegg stands in for David Cameron at PMQs, Tory MPs will seize the opportunity to remind him of his past promise to hold an in/out EU referendum.

With David Cameron still away in the US, it's Nick Clegg who will man the dispatch box at PMQs today, and we can expect the Tories to take full advantage of the occasion to remind Clegg of the days when he supported an in/out EU referendum. 

The Deputy PM now rejects a vote on Britain's membership as against "the national interest" but as the leaflet below (thought to date from 2008) shows, he was previously calling for a "real referendum" and denouncing Labour and the Tories for not doing the same. The leaflet 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?

In fairness to Clegg, this pledge was specifically tied to the Lisbon Treaty and, while the Lib Dems' 2010 manifesto repeated the promise of a referendum, it suggested that one should be only held "the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU." Since the UK is currently not negotiating a new treaty, Clegg will argue that the preconditions for a vote have not been met. But in the heat of the Commons, this detail is likely to be lost. Expect Tory MPs to bombard Clegg with questions accusing him of showing "complete disdain" for the British people and of breaking yet another election pledge. 

The Lib Dems are clear that they will not waver on the question of a referendum, with one source telling the Telegraph: "We won’t give up any government time to internal Conservative Party politics." But as Clegg knows all too well, there are few things more toxic for his reputation than his image as a man who never keeps his word. And with the Tories already in election campaign mode, no punches will now be pulled for the sake of their coalition partner's feelings. 

As I noted at the weekend, Michael Gove used his interview on The Andrew Marr Show to portray Clegg as a man too weak to support government policy (in this instance on childcare ratios) due to the internal threats to his leadership. Today, he will be assailed as a hypocrite, a liar and a scoundrel. The "Rose Garden moment" now feels a very long way away indeed. 

Nick Clegg gives a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.