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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.