Vince Cable has made some ambiguous comments in the chamber this morning about an EU referendum. At the last business questions of this Parliament, the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna asked Cable whether he agreed that the prospect of a referendum is ‘the biggest uncertainty facing business in this country’. Here's the exchange:
‘Chuka Umunna: Thank you Mr Speaker. It is indeed the last departmental questions of this parliament and can I say, Mr Speaker, it has been good to see you in your place at all of those. I’ve enjoyed my exchanges with the Secretary of State and note that during his time I think no less than nine Conservative minders have been sent to ensure, as his former deputy, the current Defence Secretary, has intimated, that he does not slip his electronic tag. But in all seriousness, for all the efforts to promote certainty to business, does he agree with me that the biggest uncertainty facing business in this country is his Tory Prime Minister’s decision to flirt with EU exit and the biggest mistake for his party would be to go along with it.
Vince Cable: Right, well I thank him for his courteous response on the last day of this parliament and for once I agree with him. It would indeed be disastrous if we were to leave the European Union. There would be a prolonged hiatus before the referendum of held. There are many options which could follow it, all of which would be very very damaging for employment in this country and I and my party will certainly not go along with that.
Was Cable saying that the Lib Dems won't go along with an in/out referendum, or that they won't go along with a Brexit? I understand that Cable was referring to the party's unhappiness at the prospect of a referendum on an arbitrary date — but his remarks do not constitute a red line against having an In/Out referendum.
This appears to be a reiteration of the Lib Dems' long-held stance: they want to stay in the EU and believes, like Labour, that having an in/out referendum puts this in danger. As Cable pointed out in his response, he’s been pro-European since the 1970s and unlike Labour ‘my party has been consistent throughout.’
The timing of these remarks is interesting, given that the election campaign kicks off on Monday. Cable's comments could signal the Lib Dems' desire to squeeze more out of the Tories in any future coalition negotiations. As James reveals in the Spectator this week, a second coalition is definitely on the cards and possibly already in the works.
It’s nigh-on impossible to see any Tory-led coalition without an EU referendum in 2017 and the Lib Dems know this. By emphasising the party's position just before the election campaign begins, Cable is ensuring that the Tories know that — in the event of another hung parliament — they will have to pay quite a price to have an EU referendum.