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Coalition Colours

First he was for one. Then he was against one. Now he could be for one again.

I’m talking about Nick Clegg and an EU Referendum. To be fair, the truth is probably a bit more nuanced than that opening paragraph suggests: after once storming out of Parliament in a faux-show of support for a referendum, the Lib Dems refined their position in their manifesto, before setting themselves against David Cameron’s policy for renegotiation followed by a referendum in 2017.

But, whatever, today’s papers are reporting that Clegg may be coming round to Cameron’s position, after all. Senior Liberal Democrats tell the Daily Mail that their leader is “on the brink of matching David Cameron’s pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.” They suggest that this is in response to their shellacking in the European elections.

It’s worth noting these senior Lib Dems are a little short on detail. No specific date is mentioned for a referendum, although there is a hint that they could support one for 2017. As one source puts it, “It is obvious we would agree to hold the Tories’ blessed referendum if we go into a second coalition. So why don’t we get share of the credit for offering one?”

So, let’s just imagine that Clegg will do exactly that: support Cameron’s plan for a referendum in 2017, perhaps even by rolling in behind Bob Neill’s Bill towards that end. Of course, it would be rather embarrassing for the Lib Dem leader: he’d have to explain away his previous opposition to the Bill. But I also think it would be the right and principled thing to do: it would live up to the “Democrat” part of the Liberal Democrats’ name.

What other ramifications might there be? Here are my immediate thoughts:

  • For Labour. The question is, what would Ed Miliband do? I still expect him to resist a referendum, for the reasons that George Eaton mentions here. But it would certainly prompt those Labour MPs who disagree with him – of which there are quite a few – a chance to speak out. They’ll be dismayed at the prospect of being the only major party not promising a vote on Europe.
  • For the Tories. A 2017 referendum is Tory members’ most unbendable “red line” for any post-2015 negotiations. It’s one of David Cameron’s red lines, too. So, in part, this could be good for the prospect of another Coalition between the Tories and the Lib Dems. But I wouldn’t dismiss the potential for this to cause aggravation between the two parties, either. Note the words of that senior Lib Dem, above: they probably would have backed a referendum anyway, in the event of any Coalition negotiations. Doing so now would be regarded as an attempt to seize credit.
  • For the Lib Dems. There are worse responses to the LibDemolition in last month’s European election. The party could, for instance, remain committed to not offering a referendum. Yet it’s unlikely that it will do much to rebuild their collapsed support. Although many of those voters migrating over to Labour from the Lib Dems would no doubt quite like a referendum, it’s also true that they didn’t adjust their sympathies because of Europe. In fact, some of them could even regard this unkindly, as Clegg & Co. shifting even closer to the Tories.
  • For Nick Clegg. Likewise, a referendum is unlikely to do much for Clegg’s popularity within his own party. Sure, he’s being pushed to offer one, so some will be glad if he relents. But that’s partially the point: he’s had to be pushed. Besides, some might cynically see this as Clegg being Clegg – and, as I said above, shifting even closer to the Tories.
  • For UKIP. The Lib Dems offer a referendum, and see basically no support move away from UKIP in the opinion polls. Not only is Europe no longer the one and only defining issue for Farage’s supporters, but, remember, the Lib Dems aren’t especially forceful about renegotiation, and would ultimately campaign to stay In. That said, it wouldn’t be entirely without ramifications for UKIP. The further Parliamentary politics marches towards an EU referendum, the more Farage will be questioned about whether he’s actually a hindrance on the way.
  • For Out. Another party backing an In-Out referendum? Compared to the situation a couple of years ago, that can’t be bad for those who want Out.

Anyway, it’s not a done deal yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Clegg does eventually back a referendum. I even mooted the possibility in a recent post.

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