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15 May 2014updated 02 Sep 2021 5:22pm

Why Clegg would accept an EU referendum in another coalition

It would enhance his bargaining power, while the Tories can remind him that they allowed a vote on AV. 

By George Eaton

There is no issue on which David Cameron has been more unambiguous than his pledge to hold an in/out EU referendum by the end of 2017. As he has said repeatedly in recent weeks, he would not lead a government that was unable to deliver this commitment. “This is not something I would ever barter away or give away,” he told Conservative supporters during a conference call. “I would not continue as prime minister unless I could absolutely guarantee this referendum will go ahead on an in-out basis.” The memory of his (rusted) “cast-iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is too strong for him to say otherwise. 

Cameron’s vow has led to some suggest that he has all but ruled out a second coalition with the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg has consistently opposed an “arbitrary” EU referendum on the grounds that a vote should only be held in the event of further treaty change. But asked this morning on the Today programme if this was a “die in the ditch” stance that would prevent a further coalition, he replied: “I’m going to disappoint you now by not drawing great red lines on what may or may not happen.” 

It is unlikely that Clegg will deviate from this answer before May 2015, but the odds are that he would accept an EU referendum as part of a second Tory-Lib Dem deal. The first reason is that it would dramatically enhance his bargaining power. In return for accepting Cameron’s ultimate red line, he could demand radical action in areas such as “fairer taxes” (the one red line he set out today) and constitutional reform. The second is that having granted the Lib Dems a referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2010, the Tories will be in a strong position to argue that he should make a similar concession. Finally, having staked so much on his party returning to government after 2015, even the danger of leaving the EU may not be enough to deter Clegg from accepting Cameron’s demand. That he referred to the possibility of treaty change as a matter of “when”, not “if”, suggests that he now regards a vote as inevitable in any case – and regards himself as just the man the secure an “in” vote. 

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