One of the key challenges for David Cameron this autumn is to address his policy on Europe. A big speech is expected before European leaders meet in December, with some in the Conservative party hoping it will come as soon as next week in order to boost Tory chances in the Corby by-election. But because the Prime Minister is offering definition for his own party on the EU, the other party leaders must do the same. Nick Clegg’s speech today set out where he stands, and he didn’t mince his words. As well as the lines I reported earlier about opting out of law-and-order powers, the Deputy Prime Minister also had this to say on eurosceptics’ desire to repatriate British powers from the EU:
‘I want to focus on the proposal doing the rounds that the best way to improve the UK’s position in Europe is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU. We should opt out of the bad bits, stay opted in to the good bits, and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers. That seems very reasonable; in fact, it’s a pretty seductive offer- who would disagree with that?
‘But, look a little closer, because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing but in reality, it is a false promise, wrapped in a Union Jack.’
The Tories in Number 10 are relaxed about this image, saying the EU has always been an area where their party takes a tougher line than the Lib Dems, and their 2015 manifestos will clearly differ on this issue. But, unsurprisingly, eurosceptic backbenchers are a little less content. Peter Bone says:
‘That is why we should not be in coalition with him.’
Bernard Jenkin is similarly enraged:
‘It’s people like him that got the UK into this mess by giving too much power away, and yet he still thinks it right that we did so! He doesn’t get it that the British people won’t stand for it any more.’
This sort of reaction is probably exactly what Clegg was hoping for when he drafted his speech, given it is an agreed area of differentiation for the two parties.
One thing worth looking out for is whether the Lib Dems try to use last night’s rebellion as a bargaining chip. The mood among MPs is that they are constantly taking one for the team in votes, while Conservative MPs run amok. Last night’s result will have done nothing to diminish that impression.