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 long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred