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.