Nick Clegg has become the latest risk to Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister is a dyed-in-the-wool pro-European who is opposed to David Cameron’s plan for an in/out referendum on whether the country should stay in the EU. But he has made clear on the BBC’s Today programme that stopping such a plebiscite would not be a “red line” for him if there was a new deal between the Lib Dems and Cameron’s Conservatives after Thursday’s election.
Now it is by no means certain that Cameron will be in a position to stay prime minister. But with Britain almost certainly heading for a hung parliament, his best chance of doing so is to cut a deal with Clegg. What we are witnessing are the preliminary negotiations of how such an arrangement might work.
Cameron has said that holding an EU referendum is a red line for him: he will not lead a government unless he can secure such a vote. This was because he promised one two years ago to appease his Eurosceptic colleagues.
Clegg, by contrast, has said that other issues – such as the National Health Service, education and public sector pay – are higher priorities than Europe. It therefore looks like there could be a match between their negotiating positions – as neither is crossing the other’s red lines.
The worry is that Clegg will use up all his ammunition pushing for these priorities that he will have none left to fight to keep Britain in the EU. The issue is not so much blocking a referendum but ensuring that it is held in the most favourable circumstances.
The British people are not clamouring for such a vote and there is therefore a risk that they will not be fully engaged if it happens. That said, an in/out referendum is probably going to occur sooner or later – and holding it when the Tory leader wants to stay in, as will almost certainly be the case with Cameron, is not such a bad idea.
Given all this, Clegg may well be right not to make holding a plebiscite itself a red line. But that should not be the end of the story. Quitting the EU would damage Britain economically and diplomatically. In return for agreeing to a referendum, the Lib Dem leader should seek to maximise the chance of such a vote leading to the UK staying in EU, so long as this is done in a fair way.
First, Clegg should insist that the “in” campaign is the “yes” campaign. This would mean the referendum question should be something like “do you want to stay in the EU?” rather than “do you want to leave the EU?” In last year’s Scottish independence vote, by contrast, the “in” campaign was “no”, putting it at a psychological disadvantage.
Second, the Lib Dems should demand that they are fully involved in the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU that Cameron plans before his referendum. This is to ensure that the Tories don’t make any impossible demands in those talks – for example, to try to interfere with the free movement of people from the rest of the EU to Britain. If those renegotiation talks hit a brick wall, it will be harder for Cameron to argue that the UK should stay in.
Third, Clegg should push for 16- and 17-year-olds to be allowed to vote in a referendum. This happened in last year’s Scottish vote, so there is a precedent. Young people are more pro-EU than the population at large. Although there are not many of them, extending the franchise in this way could help the “in” campaign if it is a tight race.
Finally, there should be cabinet collective responsibility. This would mean that, once the government had decided which way to campaign on a referendum (presumably “in”), ministers would have to toe the line or resign. Again this would probably help the “in” campaign because the bulk of the Conservative leadership would then be on that side of the argument – even though many backbenchers would take the opposite view.
Having made clear that the EU is not a red line for him, Clegg is not in a brilliant position to insist on these things. He will find it hard to pull out of future coalition talks with Cameron if he doesn’t get his way.
That said, if he focuses on these four issues, he may yet be able to get what he wants, as Cameron doesn’t want to quit the EU either. Without the Lib Dems pulling him towards Europe, he will be at the mercy of Tory Eurosceptics pulling in the opposite direction.