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Monday, May 10, 2010

One reason to oppose a Lib/Con coalition

For all the talk now of the Lib Dems as the kingmakers, wooed by both Labour and the Tories for their 60-odd votes, it is possible to forget that Nick Clegg is not some shiny, unblemished debutante, but a seasoned politician with his own electoral baggage that could throw up sticking points with both Tory and Labour backbenchers (should Con-Lib coalition talks end in much ado about nothing). Indeed, if there is one reason for the Conservatives to turn around and attempt to go it alone with a minority Government, it’s the Lib Dems’ appalling record on whether British voters should be given the referendum they were promised on the Lisbon Treaty.

The expression ‘flip-flopping’ doesn’t even begin to describe Nick Clegg’s behaviour when the issue was on the table in 2008 (see here for our reaction at the time).

Let us re-cap:

The Lib Dems, just like Labour and the Tories, promised in their 2005 election manifesto to put the European Constitution to a public vote. In 2007, in a bid to circumvent the No votes in the Netherlands and France, the EU Constitution was renamed the Lisbon Treaty and articles were recast, but the content remained virtually identical.

A bill to put the Lisbon Treaty/EU Constitution to a referendum went through the Commons in March 2008 (after the Commons debate on the Treaty was cut short). While most Labour MPs voted against a referendum, and most Conservatives voted in favour, Nick Clegg ordered his MPs to abstain on the vote, insisting that the Lib Dems were instead in favour of a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU. Three frontbench Lib Dem MPs were forced to resign because they felt bound by their election promise and decided to defy Clegg by voting in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

After the failure of the referendum amendment in the Commons, Nick Clegg continued to insist that his party was committed to the idea of a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. He said : “I argued for an In-Out referendum – and have done so for years – because I am convinced it is the right thing for Britain”.

However, the Lib Dems tabled no amendment to that effect when the issue was discussed in the Lords a few months later, and actually abstained from voting for an in/out referendum when such an amendment was put down, and instead voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. If the Lib Dems had abstained, like they did in the Commons, the referendum would have been passed.

With the Lisbon Treaty ratified in all member states, the in/out referendum pledge then appeared to have been dropped, with former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell saying in December 2009 that there was "no public appetite" for such a vote since the Lisbon Treaty was now in force. However, the pledge then re-appeared in party’s election manifesto.

Absolutely extraordinary. Perhaps we have too high expectations, but should politicians – particularly those who profess to want to ‘clean up politics’ and reconnect with voters – really get away with this kind of schizophrenic behaviour, which leaves voters wondering exactly where they stand on their manifesto pledges?

If we can put aside any potential uncertainty in having a less-than-secure minority Government in place for at least a year and that is a big If – (for injecting confidence in the economy and for the ability of the UK to influence what’s happening in Brussels at the moment), this would be as good a reason as any for David Cameron to go it alone – not least since a key challenge for MPs over the life of the next Parliament is to be able to restore trust in politics.


On a similar, but distinct, question of referendum promises, Nick Clegg spent last week doing some serious backpedalling in a bid to try and distance his party from their pledge to join the euro, which they featured slap band in the middle of their election manifesto.

On Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show last week, Nick Clegg couldn’t have distanced himself from all of his previous talk of the benefits of ‘anchoring’ our currency to the euro any faster. When asked by Vine: “Of course, but just to bring you back as it is quite important this – because you did want us in the single currency in 2003, and the other two didn’t, and you don’t want us in now, and so I’m just checking that you accept you’ve changed your mind”, Clegg said:

“No, let me be clear – in the 2005 General Election, which was the general election which counts, we did not recommend, as we’re not recommending now, that we should go into the euro. We are saying that there may be economic circumstances, and by the way the Labour government under Gordon Brown’s tests has said something very similar, there may be circumstances where you can imagine that might be the case. It’s not for now, we’re not recommending it for now, we would only ever recommend it if it was good for the British economy, not out of sentiment, because it’s good for savings and jobs and so on.”

Quite clearly “there may be circumstances where you can imagine that might be the case”, is not the most ringing endorsement for joining the single currency ever to pass one’s lips, and yet their official position remains that joining the euro is in the long term interests of the UK? Perhaps the
events of the weekend may be enough to convince some of them that such a scenario would never come to pass.


Nosemonkey said...

Is that really the best you can manage?

Clegg was in Brussels for a decade - I was expecting you'd found some kind of juicy gossip about his time there, not desperate rehashes of already widely-known policy positions which are nowhere near so controversial as you are attempting to make out.

Surely - when it comes to EU matters - the major stumbling block in any Tory-Lib Dem coalition is the fact that William Hague, the Tory candidate for Deputy PM and Foreign Secretary, is a hard europhobe, while the Lib Dems are (mostly) pro-EU? That's all you need to say on the matter, surely?

Open Europe blog team said...

Thanks Nosemonkey.

Maybe our sources aren’t as good as yours, but do feel free to share here whatever juicy gossip you are alluding to about Nick Clegg’s time working in Brussels.

Perhaps we are in a minority, but failing to deliver on your election manifesto promises when you have a clear opportunity to do so is pretty controversial – and bending and shaping your new policy to whichever particular way the wind is blowing doesn’t rate much better. On second thoughts, we feel fairly confident we are in the majority in thinking that.

We would certainly agree, though, that the two parties’ policies on Europe are quite far apart on some points, but we might go further, and suggest that it is not just a few, albeit key, Conservative front-benchers which don’t feel entirely comfortable about the Lib Dems’ EU policies, but vast swathes of the grassroots and the British public as well.

See here for more of our thoughts on that:

Anonymous said...

OE team: I'm glad you took me up on my suggestion of repeating your very good research on Cleggy's flexibility. Keep up the good work.

Mr N Monkey: if you think Hague is a "europhobe", you haven't been following events for quite some time. It's not 2001.

Open Europe blog team said...

Anonymous - many thanks for that. Your comment on the previous blog post did indeed inspire us.

Nosemonkey said...

I don't know of any juicy gossip about Clegg's time in Brussels - that's the whole point. Ten years of his life remain fairly unknown, this side of the Channel. Thought you might have done some digging. All I know about that time is a person who worked with him at the Commission who I know doesn't like or rate him at all. Don't know why, though.

On the manifesto promises question, if you're bringing up the referendum, then all three main parties failed to deliver on their manifesto pledges, by your reckoning. It's not news.

As for the supposed popularity of anti-EU opinion in the UK, don't forget that UKIP's Nigel Farage was beaten into third place in Buckingham by the founder of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party. A europhile beating a eurosceptic in a direct popularity contest.

Anonymous - "europhobe" is not a term I use lightly, and I was prepared to give Hague the benfit of the doubt even after his "Ten days to save the pound" nonsense (ten YEARS ago). But pulling out of the EPP was stupid (and seemed to be Hague's idea), and his rhetoric has been getting increasingly fervent.

More specifically, however, that interview he gave a few weeks back talking about not wanting an "immediate fight with Europe" implies that he does want a fight with the EU at some point. Combine that with the leaked draft letter from Hague to the EU in yesterday's Observer, and it looks startlingly like Hague is trying to provoke a UK-EU crisis by demanding things that he must know cannot easily be delivered.

Such a crisis (or "fight") would almost certainly lead to a referendum on continued membership which, in such circumstances, I can only see leading to British withdrawal. I see this as a mad enough option that I actually would emigrate if this were to end up the case. Hague is acting as if it's desirable. Advocates of UK withdrawl from the EU mostly (but not always) qualify for the "europhobe" tag in my book.

Nosemonkey said...

Oh, and forgot - the Lib Dem policy on the euro is pretty much exactly the same as Labour's, and as the Major government's in the mid-90s: Wait and see, and only join if it makes economic sense. At the moment, the Lib Dem position on the euro is quite explicit in stating that it doesn't currently make economic sense for Britain to join. This is unlikely to change any time soon.

Yes, the Lib Dems are (mostly) in favour of the *principle* of a single European currency, but they're not complete idiots - they're not going to join based on faith alone, and certainly not if it's likely to cause harm to the UK economy.