EU poll ‘not a Lib Dem priority’

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Published: Tuesday 5th May 2015 by The News Editor

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Nick Clegg has said he does not in principle oppose a referendum on European Union membership but has other priorities for coalition negotiations in a clear signal to the Tories who have made an in-out vote a central campaign pledge.

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted his party was not “frightened of the people” as he suggested he could be willing to meet David Cameron’s demand for an in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017.

Mr Clegg has spent the election campaign setting out Lib Dem red lines for future coalition negotiations but has not made blocking a referendum an ultimatum, despite many of his MPs being bitterly opposed to a vote.

The Deputy Prime Minister reiterated Lib Dem policy to hold a referendum in the event of a further transfer of powers to Europe, but insisted he had “other priorities” in coalition negotiations, such as NHS and education spending.

Mr Clegg told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “We’re pro-European but we’re not frightened of the people.

“We are not in principle against the idea that at some point you ask the British people whether we stay in or out.”

Asked why blocking an EU referendum was not a red line, he replied: “Because we choose the red lines that we think are most important for our country.

“A lot of (listeners) will think investing in the NHS is much more important to them, making sure that their local nurseries and schools and colleges are not cut by ideological cuts from George Osborne is more important to them, making sure that everybody can earn £12,500 without paying a single penny of income tax is more important to them.”

He added: “If you’re asking about priorities, I am pro-European, I am an internationalist to my core, but do I believe that our country should focus on balancing the books and doing so fairly, finishing the job fairly and not lurching this way and that? That, I think, is actually the central question for these outstanding hours and days of this election.”

Amid speculation that he is preparing the ground for another coalition with the Tories, Mr Clegg insisted he would have a discussion with the party that gains the “greatest mandate”, in terms of the number of Commons seats and national vote share.

Mr Clegg said: “You can’t have an arrangement unless both sides wish to chat to each other.

“If the party with the greatest mandate from the British people, if they wanted to reach out to the Liberal Democrats, of course I would listen to what they have to say, because we have got to be grown-up about this.

“We’ve got to, above all and above and beyond everything else, provide stable government.”

Mr Clegg’s comments came as he began a final push for votes, travelling from Land’s End to John O’Groats in an effort to shore up support in key battleground seats.

In a move aimed at defying national opinion polls which suggest his party could suffer a mauling at the hands of the electorate on Thursday, the Lib Dem leader is taking his battle bus on a 1,000-mile “epic journey” across Britain.

Mr Clegg hopes that he will be able to save as many of his party’s Commons seats as possible to strengthen his hand in coalition negotiations after polling day.

He insisted that he had not begun talks with either the Conservatives or Labour about a possible deal to support Mr Cameron or Ed Miliband after the General Election.

Asked what talks there had been, he said: “None at all, no discussions. That’s not the way it’s done.”

Despite his party’s poll ratings being stuck on around 8% nationally, Mr Clegg received a boost on the eve of the last phase of his election tour, with a study indicating he will hold his own Sheffield Hallam seat despite a concerted effort to oust him by Labour.

An ICM poll for the Guardian put Mr Clegg on 42%, a seven-point lead over Labour’s Oliver Coppard on 35%, when both candidates were named.

The constituency poll followed studies by former Tory peer Lord Ashcroft which put Labour ahead without naming Mr Clegg or Mr Coppard.

Mr Clegg said he has felt for years that the biggest party should have the first right to seek to govern and insisted it should not be “elbowed aside from day one”.

The Lib Dem leader told Sky News: “It’s always been my view, it has been for years, and I don’t waver from it, that if under our democratic system the British people were to see that the biggest party, whichever one that is, with the most votes and the most seats, is kind of from day one immediately elbowed aside and not given a chance to try and assemble a government, I think lots of voters would think, hang on a minute, that’s not quite in line with the outcome of the election.”

Published: Tuesday 5th May 2015 by The News Editor

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