The Tories are having great fun mocking Nick Clegg’s opposition to an EU referendum, pointing out that the Lib Dems went into the last election promising a referendum of their own. The Lib Dems in turn, point out that the wording of their manifesto actually mirrors what the coalition has put into law, namely that there should be:
an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU
But the Lib Dems made a huge issue of it, even walking out of the Commons in 2008 when speaker Michael Martin refused to let the party bring an amendment calling for a referendum. As the guardian’s Nick Watt points out, Nick Clegg said at the time:
What guidance can [the deputy speaker] give me on how we can secure – if not today, at some point during the remaining stages of the bill – the opportunity to debate the issue that many members want debated and many members of the public want debated: our future membership of the EU?
This was a deliberate strategy – the Lib Dems thought at that time it would be better to hold a referendum, which they thought they would win, and put the Europe issue to bed once and for all.
Clegg’s current opposition reflects the fact that a Yes vote is now much less certain. But there there are some senior Lib Dems who still think it would be a good idea to sign up to a referendum and be done with it. That would then enable the debate to move from whether voters should have a say on EU membership to whether we should stay in at all; from process to substance. One senior MP told me:
A referendum is inevitable in the next ten years, we might as well sign up to it and start fighting on the substance of the argument. If we did that, we would immediately put the focus back on the Tories, who would start tearing themselves apart again.
The person added:
Cameron currently has us in check, but in two moves we can get him in check-mate.
Whether or not the Lib Dems come out before the next election and wholeheartedly back a referendum, it seems unlikely that the issue will be a dividing line in any eventual coalition talks with the Tories. Cameron has made it clear that it is a Tory “red line”, telling reporters:
If I am prime minister, this will happen.
When I asked a Lib Dem adviser if not having a referendum was a red line for Clegg, he answered:
We don’t have to set out our red lines now.
The party’s strategy is not yet clear, but I would guess they will hold tight and use their willingness to back a referendum as a bargaining chip come 2015. Of course, if Labour comes out and calls for a vote, the Lib Dems will not want to look isolated, and so are likely to sign up themselves.