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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Clegg's When Not If

 

Last night David Cameron sent out an email to supporters insisting 'No Ifs, No Buts', he was going to have an In-Out referendum in 2017 if he was Prime Minister.

Today, Nick Clegg came up with what seemed a new formulation of his own, declaring that "I think it's a question of when, not if" a European treaty change will take place. "I think it's a question of 'when' not 'if' because the rules are bound to change," he said.

That line was tacked on the end of a response and was clearly not a slip. It was something he wanted to get out.

It certainly felt like a bit of leg shown by the DPM to Dave, as if to prove that they can once again come to a Coalition Agreement in 2015. On one level, Clegg seemed to be saying 'look, the current Triple Lock act will be triggered so there's no need for a new In-Out referendum bill, calm down folks'.

The recent mood music from the Germans points towards a treaty change more than it has in recent months.

But the problem is that the Triple Lock isn't triggered just by a treaty change. It is triggered by a treaty change that takes powers from the UK to Brussels.  Which is why the PM wants to use a treaty change to renegotiate the repatriation of powers and then hold a referendum on the outcome.

Clegg has (until now at least) been dead against the PM's repatriation-then-referendum strategy. In the post-PMQs huddle, Clegg's spokesmen seemed to suggest (though it was far from clear) that repatriation could be encompassed by the 'when not if' formulation.

One of them pointed to the Lib Dem manifesto from 2010. But if you look at it closely it states:

"Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU."

Yet the present 'Triple Lock' only commits the Coalition to a referendum whenever there is a transfer of power to Brussels. Of course as any fule kno, a referendum is not triggered by a transfer of power from Brussels.

And given that the Lib Dem manifesto talked of any 'fundamental change', that raises the prospect that the new Tory bill actually enacts a Lib Dem manifesto promise more effectively than the Triple Lock legislation.

Clegg doesn't want to 'bang on' about Europe. But he equally doesn't want a referendum to be a bar to a future Coalition. His problem is that to get there he sounds like he's in favour of the very repatriation process he once derided.

Confused? You should be.

 

 

UPDATE: Ed Balls has just been challenged repeatedly by John Baron in the Queen's Speech debate. After ducking it, then saying now is not the right time, Balls finally said:

"“We also support the idea, if there was a treaty change which changed the balance of powers, we would support a referendum… But I have to say to him you don’t get the reform you need by walking out of the room in a flounce.”

Well, that seemed as elastic to me as Clegg's own formulation. A treaty change which 'changed' the balance of powers could encompass repatriation and renegotiation....couldn't it?

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