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.

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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.