Lib Dem split emerges over policy of seeking second EU referendum

Nick Clegg defends the party’s policy on Brexit against criticism from Vince Cable, Norman Lamb and Lord Ashdown

Nick Clegg has defended the Lib Democrats’ policy of seeking to block Britain’s departure from the EU by demanding a second referendum, after Vince Cable said such a move would be disrespectful to voters.

The Lib Dems campaigned for a remain vote in June’s referendum, but a split has emerged at the party’s annual conference in Brighton this week about how best to respond to the result.

The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, has told delegates he believes Theresa May should be forced to put the details of any Brexit deal to the public, either in a second referendum or a general election - a position ratified in a vote on the conference floor.

Senior figures, however, including Cable and the party’s health spokesman Norman Lamb, have questioned Farron’s approach.

Cable told a fringe meeting in Brighton: “I don’t think we can say that. We should never have had the referendum in the first place, but the public have voted, and I do think it’s seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive to say ‘sorry guys, you got it wrong, let’s try again’.

He said that by rejecting even a “soft Brexit” that preserved the best aspects of the “European ideal”, the Lib Dems would be lining up with Ukip. “We should be very careful about the company we keep,” he said.

Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and now the party’s spokesman on Brexit, said: “I think Tim’s absolutely dead right. The call he’s made is one of those that will get a bit of criticism to begin with, but will be vindicated over time”.

“The cul-de-sac this government finds itself in is so much worse than I think people appreciate, and things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better, and I think the public appetite will grow, in terms of what it means for themselves and their families at the end of the process.”

Lord Ashdown, the Lib Dem peer and former party leader, appeared to reject the idea of a second referendum. Speaking to reporters in Brighton, he said: “Your presumption is that all the 48% who voted to remain in Europe would want to see a second referendum. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a huge number of them, who think ‘OK, it’s out, we don’t want to re-run that, but we do want the right solution.’”

Party sources said they believed the Lib Dems could even win support from leave voters for a second referendum on the deal, but that the question would not be the same, a binary choice between leaving the EU with the negotiated settlement, or staying in on current terms.

Clegg argued that taking Britain out of the EU could eventually do more damage to the Conservatives’ reputation than the chaos of Black Wednesday in 1992, when the pound plunged out of the European exchange rate mechanism.

“If there was any justice in the world the Conservative party’s reputation for economic competence would take a hit several times bigger than it did on Black Wednesday. These people will do by the end of this process more damage to the economy than John McDonnell could in a decade”.

Clegg refused to back the calls by several centrist Labour MPs, including Rachel Reeves and Stephen Kinnock, for the government to insist on controls on freedom of movement as a key part of any Brexit deal. “You’ve got to be careful if you’re Labour. You’re not going to win a Dutch auction with the Conservatives or Ukip over immigration,” he said.

In his conference speech on Tuesday, Farron will blame the referendum vote on “the calculating forces of darkness who care nothing for the working people of this country, nothing for our NHS, nothing for those who struggle to get by, and who exploited that anger to win an exit from Europe that will hurt the poorest the hardest.”

He will say: “When Theresa May does agree a deal with the EU, we want the people to decide,” Farron will say. “And if the Tories say, ‘we’ve had enough referendums’, I say ‘you started it!’ How dare they let bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels stitch up our future?”.


Heather Stewart and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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