One of the areas Conservatives and Lib Dems are more than happy to distinguish themselves on is Europe, although the issue always gets far less attention at Lib Dem conference than it does at Conservative gatherings. A Conservative might find this odd: surely a party so wholeheartedly in favour of Britain remaining within the European Union would want to make the case for why Europe is so wonderful.
Instead, senior figures today attacked Conservatives who want Britain to leave the European Union as ‘potty’. In a fringe this lunchtime, Lord Oakeshott told the audience that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was not necessary as the electorate could express its view through the ballot box at general elections. He hinted that he had regretted the party’s decision to pursue a referendum on the Alternative Vote, saying they should never have gone down that route.
At the same fringe, Tim Farron accused the Conservative leadership of ‘slipperiness’ and ‘duplicity’ over the EU, saying David Cameron and William Hague had ‘created a monster that is going to consume them’.
Danny Alexander took the same line in a question-and-answer session in the main hall this afternoon. He said:
‘There are some people who argue that we should leave the European Union altogether, which is totally potty. There are other issues, though, where we have taken a tough line. The European budget, for example.’
On a possible referendum, he added:
‘I think it would be a total distraction from the problems that we are facing both as a country and as a continent.’
But for all their hard talking on how pointless a referendum would be, the one thing that these three men didn’t address was whether it was likely to take place. That fell to Lord Ashdown, who told another lunchtime fringe that ‘we are now irretrievably on the way to a European referendum’.
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