Farron suggests the Lib Dems will need to toughen their EU referendum stance

At an NS fringe event, the party president said the Lib Dems should "consider very hard" whether to name a date for an in/out vote.

The Liberal Democrat high command is pleased with the way their conference went. There were challenges to the leader’s position that were conspicuous enough to give the impression of a lively, democratic debate and unsuccessful enough to cement the view that Nick Clegg is in absolute command.

One policy that wasn’t much queried from the floor was the line on a European referendum. At the moment, the Lib Dem position is to be pro-EU but also pro-reform and in favour of a referendum in the event of some new treaty being signed that changes the balance of power between London and Brussels. (That also serves as a précis of the Labour position.) But will the line hold? There is some doubt in all parties that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband can plausibly get through next May’s elections to the European parliament, still less a general election, without a referendum pledge of equivalent certainty to the one that Tory back benchers extracted from David Cameron at the start of this year.

Tim Farron, Lib Dem President, appears to share some of that doubt. I interviewed him on stage at a conference fringe event and the referendum question came up. This is what he said:

"The polling indicates that an in/out referendum – I am a fairly confident, would be won. I don’t think any other referendum on Europe would be but an in/our referendum would be won for hard, pragmatic, economic reasons. We mustn’t be overly shrill about it and we musn’t say ‘we will lose 3m jobs tomorrow if we leave the EU’ because that’s not credible’ …but you’ve already got Nissan saying we would not be in the north-east of England if you were not in the European Union."

I suggested to Farron that the pro-EU argument is constantly held back by the perception of cowardice in the face of hostile public opinion – that europhiles are seen as elitists who are afraid to ask the question in case the "wrong" people give the "wrong" answer. A pro-EU campaign can’t effectively get off the ground, I suggested, until pro-EU politicians are ready to say, in effect: "we aren’t afraid, we’ll have that referendum, we’ll win, bring it on!" Farron’s response was revealing:

"I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I spent a mere three months in the shadow cabinet when I was first appointed to it by Nick because I felt that, on the Lisbon Treaty – I thought we’d lose a referendum – but you can't tell people you don’t trust them. The party’s position is very much in favour of a referendum. I think it's right not to set a date. I think there may be some political wisdom in setting a date but there’s no practical wisdom, because you’ve given your hand away."

But that is the view now. Will the Lib Dems really get through a campaign without a referendum pledge? Will Nick Clegg get through leadership debates when Cameron is saying his is the only party that trusts the people?

"Our line is that there should be a referendum on Europe and we haven’t named a date and I think we probably need to look at that. A referendum is inevitable and we should go and win it. I don’t want to set a date for when it should be but I think we should probably consider very hard if that’s something we want to do because actually if we do that then Tories are in a really bad position. The only advantage Cameron has got is to say there will be a referendum. The minute other people say, ‘yeah there will be a referendum’, Cameron’s in a position where people are saying ‘which side are you going to vote for?’ and his party is split down the middle and they will be like cats in sack. … It’s a very tenuous position he’s in and he must realise that. I predict it won’t last."

That sounded to me as if the Lib Dem position on a referendum is very much up for negotiation.

One final thought: A Ukip source tells me the party is very eager for the Lib Dems and Labour to match Cameron’s referendum pledge. Why? Because Nigel Farage recognises the potency of Cameron’s claim that a Tory government in 2015 could be the only chance Eurosceptics get for a vote on EU membership and that could squeeze the Ukip vote in 2015. Once everyone has a referendum in their manifesto, potential Ukip voters will be freer to bring their anti-everyone, plague-on-all-your-houses instincts all the way into the polling booth instead of "coming home" to the Tories at the last minute. In that analysis, matching Cameron’s line on Europe could be in the crude electoral interests of Labour and the Lib Dems, bolstering the Ukip vote to deprive Cameron of a majority. Whether that is reason enough to do it – the cynicism would shine through and that is hardly a good look for either Clegg or Miliband – is a different question entirely. 

The EU flag flies in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge