Asked whether his party would do what it could to stop a referendum if it went into coalition, Clegg said: “You can’t ask me to do more than set out my stall and publish our manifesto, as we will, and then the British people can decide between the different propositions put forward.”
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, he continued: “What you’re asking me to do, of course I can’t [do]. I can’t stare in a crystal ball and tell you how the Conservative position on Europe will change. Get someone from the Conservative party to talk about the Conservative party position.”
David Cameron has said that an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 will be a “red line” for the Conservatives in any coalition negotiations, meaning a Lib Dem refusal to back the idea would spell the end of hopes for a second Con-Lib coalition. Senior Lib Dem sources have speculated that the issue could split the party if coalition talks with the Conservatives were held.
The Lib Dems, like Labour, have said they would hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if more powers were handed to Brussels. “My position is and always has been, as enshrined in law by this government, that there are of course circumstances in which a referendum should take place,” said Clegg.
“But what we will never, ever do, of course, is play footsie with the prospect of actually leaving the European Union, which is where large parts of the Conservative party are – and of course they’re doing so as they’re desperately chasing Ukip to the right.
“If you want a referendum in all circumstances, then clearly don’t vote Liberal Democrat; if you never want a referendum, then don’t vote Liberal Democrat.”
Clegg’s remarks come the day after he declined to fully endorse comments to the Observer by the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, who said that Tory policy on the EU and the environment would make any future coalition with the LibDems after the election very difficult and that it amounted to “economic and environmental irresponsibility of the highest order”.
“Of course we have different views to the Conservatives. I’m the leader of the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron is the leader of the Conservatives,” said Clegg, speaking at the launch of the party’s general election campaign in its target seat of Oxford West and Abingdon.
“[The Conservatives] have a completely different attitude towards Europe. They have this hokey cokey where one day they want to leave, the next day they don’t want to leave.”
Clegg said it would be an “economic act of self-harm” to leave the EU, adding: “We are not like the Conservative party, half of whom are straining at the leash to leave. We think that would be a terrible thing for the British economy.”
Polling from Opinium for the Observer put the Lib Dems up one point at 8% of the vote. It put the Tories one point ahead of Labour on 34%, down two on the week before, with Labour on 33%. Ukip is on 13% (-1) and the Greens up one point on 7%. Research has suggested the Lib Dems could lose as many as half their 56 seats at the general election.
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Monday 30th March 2015 10.18 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010