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24th Feb 2024

UK elections: parties haggle over EU referendum

  • Clegg (l) and Cameron: Could a second coalition be in the offing? (Photo: number10.gov.uk)

David Cameron has insisted that a Conservative-led coalition would have to commit to a referendum on EU membership.

Speaking ahead of Thursday’s UK general election, the prime minister stated that he would "not lead a government that doesn't have that referendum in law and carried out".

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  • Nigel Farage said he would resign the Ukip leadership “within ten minutes” if he fails to win the South Thanet constituency (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

"People would worry that, were we to fall short - and I don't believe we will - but were we to, this is something that could be bargained away and I want to be absolutely clear with people that that will not happen,” Cameron said during a BBC interview on Sunday (3 May).

Cameron has promised to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership followed by an ‘in/out’ referendum by the end of 2017 if his party wins a majority on Thursday.

The opposition Labour party opposes a public vote on EU membership, but there are signs that the Liberal Democrats, usually regarded as the most pro-EU of the main UK parties, could abandon its opposition to a poll as part of a coalition deal with Cameron’s party, in exchange for commitments from the Conservatives on public sector pay, health spending and tax faced by low-paid workers.

Nick Clegg’s party published a set of six ‘red-line’ policies, which did not mention the EU.

Interviewed on Sunday, Clegg reiterated his opposition to an EU referendum, accusing the Conservatives of “banging on about Europe”, but refused to rule out supporting one at the Conservatives’ insistence.

Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether an EU referendum was “up for grabs” in coalition negotiations, Clegg replied that “it’s not my responsibility to try and stare into a crystal ball”.

“The way this works is I set out my priorities, David Cameron sets out his, Ed Miliband sets out his. How those red lines are or are not compatible is in part dependent,” he added.

However, opinion polls suggest that parliamentary arithmetic will not be on Cameron or Clegg’s side. Most polls put the Conservatives and Labour in a dead-heat on between 32-34 percent, both claiming around 265-285 seats, well short of the 326 needed to form a majority.

With the Liberal Democrats set to be reduced to around 30 seats, the Scottish National Party is increasingly likely to be the ‘kingmaker’. The SNP is poised to claim more than 50 of the 59 Scottish constituencies.

The most likely option appears to be a Labour government backed by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, although Labour leader Ed Miliband has so far refused to entertain any deal with the Scottish separatists.

Meanwhile, both Clegg and Ukip leader Nigel Farage are facing tough challenges in their respective constituencies. At the weekend, Farage promised that he would resign the Ukip leadership “within ten minutes” if he fails to win the South Thanet constituency.

After topping the poll in last May’s European elections, and winning two by-elections in the autumn, the UK Independence party had had hopes of holding the balance the power. But despite polling at between 12-14 percent, around 5 percent higher than the Liberal Democrats, their votes are expected to translate into two or three seats.

Has the Ukip surge fizzled out?

“All bets are off, the whole thing’s up in the air.” So said Ukip leader Nigel Farage last November after his party won its second by-election in successive months.

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