EU referendum: Nick Clegg says just matter of time

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg came under pressure from Tory backbenchers. Picture: PA
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg came under pressure from Tory backbenchers. Picture: PA
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LIB Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is “a question of when not if”.

• Lib Dems ‘would block referendum moves before 2015’.

• Nick Clegg under heavy fire from Tory backbenchers during PMQs.

But during a Prime Minister’s questions, where he was standing in for David Cameron, Mr Clegg made it clear his party would block any moves for tabling an EU referendum bill before the election in 2015.

His comments came as he was besieged by Tory backbenchers who waved leaflets where Mr Clegg promised voters an in/out referendum.

One leading Tory eurosceptic backbencher Edward Leigh asked him if the person on the Lib Dem leaflet called Nick Clegg “was an imposter or a hypocrite?”

But Mr Clegg hit back at suggestions he had broken his promise to the electorate.

He said: “I fully stand behind the position I took then and my party’s taken ever since, that when there is a change in the rules and new things are offered to the United Kingdom within the European Union, there should and there will be a European referendum.”

‘Laughing stock’

Defending the 2008 leaflet, Mr Clegg added the coalition had gone even further than his original commitment by legislating for a referendum.

Responding to another Tory backbencher James Gray, who was also waving the leaflet, the Deputy Prime Minister said: “I think we should stick to the priorities of the British people, which is growth and jobs.”

Earlier Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman pointed out that the Prime Minister - who is still on a trip to the United States - had only attended one PMQs in the last eight weeks.

She said: “Three years into this Coalition everyone knows that this country faces big problems and what do we have, we have a Prime Minister that is not only indecisive, not just weak but is fast becoming a laughing stock.”

Ms Harman added: “We have all seen what the Prime Minister has been doing in America. He has been on a London bus in New York, something you don’t actually see him doing a great of when he is here.

“He has also been busy explaining to President Obama the benefits of Britain’s membership of the European Union. Why is he able to do it in the White House but not in this House?”

She added: “We have got an important amendment on the Queen’s Speech tonight but the Prime Minister is out of the country.

“Can you help the House? If the Prime Minister was here today, would he be voting for the Government, against the Government, or showing true leadership and abstaining?”

Guarantee

Mr Clegg said the Prime Minister was “unusually assiduous” at coming to the Commons to make statements.

He replied: “Your party rejected an opportunity just two years ago to vote on legislation, which we on this side of the House pushed through, giving the British people a copper-bottomed legal guarantee about when a referendum would take place.

“Our position is perfectly clear. Yours is not.”

Labour MP Tristram Hunt questioned why Liberal Democrats had previously supported Government legislation but Tory MPs were allowed to table an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expressing regret that an EU referendum Bill has not been included in the legislative programme.

After PMQs sources close to Mr Clegg later made clear that the Lib Dem leader was not prepared to see Government time used to pass the Conservative draft bill.

“We have already had 100 hours of debate on this subject and legislated on it,” said a senior Lib Dem source. “Why now have another debate about something which people are suggesting doesn’t happen until 2017 after a renegotiation which hasn’t happened yet and a general election that nobody knows the result of?

“The Tories are going to bang on about Europe. I would rather concentrate on Liberal Democrat priorities like jobs and growth.”