Lib Dem U Turn on EU Plebiscite

Eureporter 7 October 2014

Brexit more likely as Lib Dems U-turn on Cameron’s ‘In-Out’ referendum?
EU Reporter Correspondent | October 7, 2014 | 0 Comments
Opinion by Denis MacShane
Up to now the dividing line on David Cameron’s proposed ‘In-Out’ referendum has been clear. The Conservatives and Ukip in favour: Labour and the Liberal Democrats against.
As The Guardian reported in July: “Nick Clegg has defeated an attempt by senior Liberal Democrats to match the Tories by guaranteeing to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the next parliament. The deputy prime minister… won the agreement of the Lib Dem parliamentary party to stand by the current policy. This is to hold a referendum only if UK sovereignty is passed to the EU.”
That is also Ed Miliband’s policy. He has sustained his opposition to the proposed 2017 Brexit referendum despite grumblings from some senior Labour people that Labour ought to match the Tory plebiscite pledge in order to neutralize it on the doorsteps as the hunt for votes in the May 2015 general election gets under way.
Tory ministers and spin doctors have been saying consistently that the only party offering a referendum – and, implicitly, a chance to quit the EU – are the Conservatives.
But now there are signs that the Lib Dem opposition to Cameron’s 2017 referendum may be disappearing. TheFinancial Times and Guardian both ran stories quoting ‘senior’ Lib Dem sources at the party’s annual conference in Glasgow that Nick Clegg was ready to do a U-turn and accept Cameron’s 2017 In-Out referendum if that was the price of staying in a coalition with the Tories.
Clegg’s closest lieutenant both in the party and government is Danny Alexander, once the European Movement’s press officer and at the time a keen Europhile. His four years of daily working with George Osborne and the ineradicably Eurosceptic Treasury seems to have changed him. He told the Daily Telegraph that in the event of post-election coalition talks the Lib Dems would ditch their commitment against a Brexit referendum and they would ‘be able to come to an agreement which was satisfactory to both parties’.
This produced a cross response from the veteran pro-European Vince Cable who responded to the briefing that Clegg was ready to endorse Cameron’s In-Out vote by telling The Times, ‘We have made it clear that the kind of referendum the Tories want is just not on offer as far as we are concerned.’
At one level this apparent contradiction is typical of the loose lips of the party conference season. But the briefing and Alexander’s kite-flying appears part of a concerted move to ditch the red line against the Cameron In-Out referendum.
All but one of the Lib Dem MEPs who are an important pro-EU force within the party lost their seats in the May European Parliament elections. Many LibDems hold what until 1992 or 1997 were essentially petty bourgeois Tory seats especially in the south west and the north where there is vehement hostility to Europe. The BNP in 2009 and UKIP in 2014 did very well in these areas with their virulent anti-EU line.
So LibDem MPs anxious to neutralize the Tory offer of a referendum may welcome a U-turn.
If this does happen it will leave Labour isolated as the only party saying ‘No’ to Cameron’s Brexit referendum. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visiting London this week made clear that there would be no new Treaty to help Britain and no concesssions could be made on free movement of people which appears a key demand from the Conservatives if they are to argue that the UK should stay in Europe.
2017 is the year of elections in Germany and France as well as Mr Cameron’s proposed referendum following his supposed renegotiation of Britain’s place in the EU with a major repatriation of powers to London.
Everyone in Europe wants the UK to stay an EU member. No-one in Europe knows how to make this happen on Conservative terms by 2017.
If the Lib Dems have changed their position and aligned themselves with the Conservatives it will be an major dividing line in the UK general election. Labour will be the only party that agrees with those business leaders who shudder at the thought of May 2015 opening two or more years of endlessly pro and anti-EU political infighting in Britain as well as the entire pro-growth agenda of the Juncker Commission being put on hold while the Brexit issue dominates the agenda.
But if the question of an In-Out referendum is vital to citizens’ concerns then the LibDem ditching of their opposition to Cameron’s Brexit vote may ensure the plebiscite does happen in 2017. And when voters get a chance to express their discontent with Europe in an In-Out plebiscite Brexit can very well happen. Nick Clegg has a chance to clear all this up. But otherwise his U-turn of October 2014 may signal the moment when Britain left Europe.
Denis MacShane is a former UK minister of Europe.

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