Plans to edge Liberal Democrats away from a commitment to rejoin the EU have sparked a furious row with fervent Remainers at Sir Ed Davey’s first conference as leader.
A member of the party’s federal policy committee has accused the leadership of a “stitch-up” after a motion put forward for this weekend’s virtual gathering suggested that rejoining should be an “option on the table” rather than a formal goal of party policy.
The issue is set to come to a head in a vote on Sunday, when rebels will attempt to overturn the leadership motion and instead install a commitment to a “longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU”.
It appeared that Davey may be backing away from confrontation on the issue, with one Lib Dem source saying that several key party spokespeople are expected to back the amendment.
FPC member and former parliamentary candidate Olly Craven told The Independent that he and several other members of the group were astonished to see the motion tabled following a meeting last week to agree the subjects for debate at the four-day conference.
“We thought we had agreed one thing at the FPC meeting and then it was written up by officers, I suspect with a slight nudge from the leadership, as something much weaker,” he said.
“There has been a considerable rebellion over it. About half of the entire committee have signed up to the amendment to restore the original wording we thought we were approving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen members of the committee amending their own motion before.
“It does feel like a stitch-up. There was considerable anger when we saw what had been submitted, and emails have been flying back and forth ever since.”
The motion tabled in the FPC’s name appears to reflect Davey’s intention to move the Lib Dems away from being seen as a single-issue pro-EU party.
While insisting that he and his party continue to be passionately internationalist and pro-European, he has signalled he will not campaign to take the UK back into the EU immediately, saying that the idea that voters have any appetite to refight the Leave versus Remain battle was “for the birds”.
The leadership motion for Sunday’s vote says Lib Dems will seek the closest possible relationship between Britain and the EU, but breaks with long-standing policy by making membership an “option” rather than a commitment.
Meanwhile, a second amendment which has gained strong support among activists would commit the party to a 10-year timescale for the UK’s re-entry into the EU.
Wera Hobhouse, the Lib Dem shadow leader of the Commons, is one of the party frontbenchers planning to back the objective of eventual return to the EU in Sunday’s vote.
She told The Independent: “I’m firmly in the camp who believe we should have a policy which talks about our aspiration of EU membership at some point in the future, without putting a date on it.
“Ed has every right as leader to put forward what his thinking is on the right way forward, but I think we Liberal Democrats can be the ones to keep the flame alive, even if the subject is not popular at the moment and non-membership is now the reality.”
Ms Hobhouse played down suggestions of a leadership stitch-up, suggesting that the motion’s drafters had tried to reflect the conclusions of a meeting which ended without a vote on wording.