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Rejoining EU will be ‘long-term thing’, says Ed Davey as Lib Dem tensions grow over reversing Brexit

The Liberal Democrat leader said he has ‘worked very carefully’ with foreign affairs spokesman Layla Moran ‘to make sure that we can improve our relationship with Europe’

Archie Mitchell
Monday 25 September 2023 15:16 BST
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Ed Davey fires cannon to celebrate Lib Dem by-election victory

Sir Ed Davey has said rejoining the EU is a “long-term thing” but is not currently on the table — as Liberal Democrat tensions grow about Brexit.

The Lib Dem leader said he has “worked very carefully” with foreign affairs spokesman Layla Moran “to make sure that we can improve our relationship with Europe”.

But he said “at the moment those sorts of things… are not on the table”.

Questions persist over the party’s stance on Brexit, with Sir Ed heckled on Sunday after insisting to delegates during a Q&A session that he was “campaigning hard on Europe”.

“No, you’re not,” one audience member replied.

Sir Ed has said people on the doorstep just “aren’t talking about Europe”, but senior figures — including former leader Sir Vince Cable — have iargued the party should not lose sight of the issue.

An ultimate goal to return to membership status within the bloc is currently official policy, but the leader has been reluctant to speak publicly about this and says it is currently off the table.

Former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson ran the party’s disastrous 2019 general election campaign on a pledge to revoke Brexit without a referendum, but ended up losing her seat.

Sir Ed has advocated “root-and-branch” reform of the existing Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA), but framed this as a long-term challenge, arguing a “realistic” approach is necessary.

It came after the party scrapped a long-standing pledge to put a penny on income tax to fund spending on the NHS and social care.

The Lib Dems have called for the increase since 1992 but have scrapped it in a bid to pile pressure on Tory MPs in the so-called blue wall of safe southern seats.

Sir Ed said the commitment was unsustainable when people are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

Speaking to The Times, he said: "We’ve had two years of frozen income tax allowances and four more years to come. Those six years of stealth income tax rises equate to more than a 3p rise in the basic rate of tax.

"You can’t ask working families to pay more in tax. You just can’t.

"In the blue wall seats, which we’ve never really been competitive before, the evidence is we’re now becoming super-competitive."

Instead, Sir Ed said the party would hike levies on banks and large companies.

Reversing cuts to the surcharge on the financial sector and increasing the burden on water, oil and gas firms would help to fund the party’s newly adopted multibillion-pound policy platform, the leader indicated.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if he thinks wealthier individuals should pay more tax, Sir Ed said: "I think the taxes are going up quite a lot already under the Conservatives."

On whether they should go up further, he said: "No... because over the next few years you’re seeing a big increase in taxes that are already baked in and I think there is a real danger that if we don’t ask those organisations who are doing really well, like the oil and gas companies, like the banks, like the water companies, they have the money."

The party adopted an early version of its manifesto at its annual conference on Sunday with policies aimed at winning over voters in Tory heartlands.

It will lay out a fully costed document closer to the next general election, expected next year.

Among its policies is a £5 billion social care pledge which would see people "be looked after where they want to be at home" and improved GP and mental health services.

Sir Ed has argued that the social care package would help to pay for itself by saving £3 billion elsewhere on the NHS, for example by freeing up hospital beds and relieving pressure on care homes.

Newly relaxed housing targets may also prove controversial with activists when they are debated on Monday.

The party has committed to building 150,000 social homes a year - shifting away from a pledge to build 380,000 homes annually in its 2019 manifesto.

But one Lib Dem council leader, speaking at a fringe event alongside housing spokeswoman Helen Morgan, said abandoning national housing goals would be an "abdication of responsibility" and warned against "fluffy local targets".

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