In the autumn Nick Clegg annoyed some in the Labour party by telling his conference that ‘Labour would wreck the recovery’ and that ‘the Conservatives would give us the wrong kind of recovery’. Some senior figures such as Lord Adonis said it suggested Clegg was predisposed to partnership with the Tories as wrecking is so much worse than a tendency to veer off in the wrong direction. But in his New Year message Clegg turns on all the parties, warning voters that a vote for anyone other than the Liberal Democrats in the European elections would wreck the recovery too.
‘In May you are going to choose who represents you in the European Union. Two of the parties on offer could help lead Britain out of Europe, the surest way to throw our recovery away. And the other one won’t lift a finger to help us stay in. UKIP want out. The Conservatives are flirting with exit. And Labour just don’t have the courage of their convictions on this.
‘All three would put narrow political interests ahead of the national economic interest. So, in a few months, I’m going to ask you to make a different choice. The Liberal Democrats are Britain’s Party of In. Not because we’re in love with the EU, or we think it’s perfect. But because being in Europe means jobs, trade and prosperity.’
Clegg does have a valid point that the Lib Dems are the only out and proud pro-EU party to go for, if that kind of thing floats your boat. But where his reasoning is rather shaky is the implication that voting for any of the other parties will somehow jeopardise the investment and benefits that the UK receives as a result of its EU membership. The polling on voters’ views on the EU and their desire for a referendum is hardly a secret, so the only pro-EU party doing very badly in the 2014 poll will not come as a shock to investors (and most senior Lib Dems are reasonably sanguine about the prospect of doing very badly because they don’t think anyone will pay the Lib Dems a great deal of attention when the story will be all about how well Ukip does and how badly the Tories do).
And given David Cameron has already made a 2017 referendum a Conservative manifesto pledge and a red line for Coalition negotiations, it’s not as though Ukip’s success in May will suddenly mean the prospect of a vote that the Lib Dems fear will lead to exit. It will, of course, lead to panic and a demand from eurosceptic Conservatives for more goodies from the party leadership. But the referendum pledge has already been made, so it’s a bit late for that.
Meanwhile the Conservatives are privately trying to reassure one another that the 2014 result will mean nothing as voters will see it as a ‘risk-free’ protest vote. Clegg is trying to argue exactly the opposite: that voting in these elections does mean rather a lot.
It’s also interesting that Clegg has focused on Europe as a route into the recovery debate, rather than zooming in on the cost of living as Ed Miliband has done in his message. We are yet to hear the Prime Minister’s message, and it will be interesting to see whether he makes that micro pitch that the Labour leader has on bills and people struggling, or the rather esoteric macro approach adopted by his Lib Dem counterpart.Tags: European Union, Nick Clegg, UK politics