Is it really worth getting excited about David Laws’ suggestion that the Lib Dems could put an In/Out referendum pledge in their 2015 manifesto? It’s not the first time, after all, and anyone who follows these things closely will know that below the excited headlines, there is always a more complex reality.
When you burrow into what Laws is really proposing, you realise that it could prove a thorny issue in coalition negotiations in 2015 as it contrasts sharply with David Cameron’s own pledge.
Speaking at the start of the Lib Dems’ Glasgow conference, Laws effectively recommitted the party to its 2010 promise, saying they would back an In/Out referendum if there were a ‘material change’ to Britain’s EU relationship. A pledge which once again depends on events in Europe, which would allow the Conservatives to argue that they are the only major party offering a real referendum. But he then followed this up by effectively ruling out a public vote in the event that powers were transferred back from Brussels to the UK, an indication that the Liberal Democrats are seeking to cover themselves from a ‘material change’ being interpreted too broadly.
This is a clear rejection of the Tory position, which is that a referendum should follow any renegotiation. And it raises a number of important questions. Who or what will decide what a ‘material change’ amounts to (similar to the contentious discretion of ministers to decide what a ‘significant’ transfer of power is in the Coalition’s referendum lock? Do the conditions attached to referendum pledges mean consensus on a referendum as a basic red line is impossible? What ground could Cameron really give that would keep the guarantee of a referendum, regardless of events in Europe, for his party?
In the meantime, there’s still only one party committed to a straight and actionable referendum pledge in its 2015 manifesto: the Tories. And the approaches of the other two parties mean that even this pledge is far from certain to come to fruition.
Allie Renison is Research Director of @forbritain – the campaign to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EUTags: Danny Alexander, EU referendum, Lib Dem conference 2013