Nick Clegg will start his political comeback next month with a speech at the Liberal Democrat conference on Britain’s future in the European Union ahead of the In/Out referendum, which is expected next year.
Party sources confirmed that Mr Clegg will use the speech, traditionally reserved for leaders who have recently resigned or been forced out, to make an impassioned defence of EU membership. The former deputy prime minister, who resigned the leadership in the wake of a disastrous election that saw the Lib Dems reduced from 56 to eight MPs, will also speak on the EU at two fringe events.
New leader Tim Farron, however, cannot hope for much media coverage of the conference in Bournemouth despite Mr Clegg’s high-profile intervention. Usually, government does not make any announcements during major party conferences, but it is understood that the LibDems are now considered too small to qualify for that dispensation. For example, journalists have been invited to a rail briefing in London on the Monday during conference, an event that would not have been scheduled when the Lib Dems were the House of Commons’ third-largest party. They have been replaced by the SNP, which won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland.
On the plus side, the LibDem conference is expected to have its highest attendance in recent years after a surge in membership in the wake of the election. The party increased its numbers more than 30 per cent barely a month after May’s debacle, while centre-left activists frustrated by coalition were cheered by the election of Mr Farron, who was untainted by power-sharing with the Conservatives because he was never a minister.
The conference will be lit up by a series of clashes on issues such as Trident – members will debate whether to make scrapping the nuclear deterrent party policy. The policy at the election was to reduce the submarines that carry Trident from four to three, which would end 24-hour patrols but significantly reduce the cost, estimated at up to £100bn, of replacing the aging fleet.
Another motion for debate is whether the leader should have a veto on policies set by party conference, so Mr Farron would not have to include them in an election manifesto. This would help avoid a repeat of the LibDems’ catastrophic decision to renege on a pledge to oppose tuition fees and in fact support a trebling of them as part of the price of coalition. The leader could make sure that certain policies could be excluded from the manifesto to avoid accusations of breaking manifesto pledges.
Party sources argued this will cause a “hoo-ha”, but that it will be defeated for being undemocratic and is unlikely to have Mr Farron’s support.
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