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Steady as she goes: Lib Dems unveil long march back into Europe

Stung by their 2019 election campaign but keen to shore up their pro-EU convictions, the party will this weekend vote on a detailed roadmap back

Layla Moran MP making a speech at a previous Lib Dem conference - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Even in their time in government, the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference struggled to hold the interest of even the most wonkish of political observers, but this weekend’s could, quietly, have a moment of significance.

Held virtually (one long Covid effect for the party, which has struggled to attract exhibitors since exiting government, is that the need to hire expensive venues has dissipated), the conference will on Saturday vote to a policy of what amounts to a roadmap back into, initially, the Single Market, and ultimately the EU itself.

The prosaically-titled Policy Paper 114 (‘Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe’), which is widely expected to be adopted by the conference, recognises, it says, “that the UK’s bonds with its European friends can only be built back gradually over time”.

The party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Layla Moran, will propose the motion on Saturday morning. She told me in Parliament’s Portcullis House this week it was “a really important opportunity for the party to keep reaffirming its pro-European roots”.

She says: “The process itself was set up from previous conference motions which had already committed to rejoin, committed to looking at a roadmap to how we do that, which would likely include the Customs Union and Single Market, and this paper is flesh on that bone.”

The roadmap is a pragmatic piece of work. On the one hand, I’m told the majority of the current party membership joined since (and, it’s not unreasonable to assume, as a result of) the Brexit vote, and may be expected to want a more turbocharged rejoin policy. But on the other, the party’s 2019 general election manifesto, which committed them to cancelling Brexit without a second referendum, was widely seen as a disaster. One senior source stressed there was no issue with the membership, saying there was a “really warm welcome” for the policy and that “everyone accepts the reality of the situation”.

The motion (which clocks in at a hefty 52 pages before footnotes) sets out four stages to applying to rejoin the Single Market. The first would start with a declaration of a fundamental change in the UK’s attitude, including extending mobility schemes and granting full Settled Status to all EU citizens and families living in the UK at the end of December 2020.

The second ‘stagepost’ would seek to agree partnerships with programmes such as the European Aviation Safety Agency, Erasmus and scientific programmes, while the third would deepen the trading relationship, including negotiating a veterinary agreement for trade in food and livestock and deals on fast-tracked work visas. The final stage would see the UK apply to rejoin the Single Market.

There are no dates, though, and Moran says it is “incredibly important to stress there are no dates because, frankly, we’re moving backwards right now”.

She says: “Step one, and this is reflected in the paper, is simply to rebuild our trading relationship with the European Union. You know, we are moving in a direction that is going to make it harder and harder and harder for businesses and individuals to lead their lives.

“We’re very much not framing it ‘let’s go back to how it was before’. Because the fact is the goalposts are changing, the EU is already changing some of its standards. We want to keep pace. This country is already changing, the economy is changing after the pandemic. So we need to take into account all of those factors, but the fact is – and this is what lies at the heart of the policy – we believe that Britain’s place lies at the heart of Europe.

“We are a country that has always done better, economically and in society – and look at what’s happening geopolitically – when we have stood close to our European allies, we stop looking towards the Far East and the Indo-Pacific tilt, we stop pretending we’re Americans. We’re not. We’re Europeans. The Ukraine crisis has made it really, really clear that we are Europeans and our future lies as a country at the heart of Europe.

“Now, what form that takes eventually – we all know where we want to go as proud Europeans, but the staging posts in between are, at least let’s stop the decline and in the probably medium- to long-term, I would argue probably 10 years, let’s look at the pragmatic solution of rejoining the Single Market.”

Following the chutzpah of the Lib Dems’ 2019 campaign nobody in the party is saying Ed Davey is going to be the next prime minister. But given that – at least pre the invasion of the Ukraine – many polls have been giving Labour small majorities which would require at least some kind of confidence and supply motion with another party, one wonders how much of a shift on Europe the Lib Dems would require from Keir Starmer for their cooperation.

“I wish that Labour could see the damage that this is causing the economy,” says Moran.

“I wish that they would make the case stronger than they do, but they choose not to. And the reason they choose not to is because they know they’ve to win over Red Wall seats. From our perspective, we know where our hearts lie.

“I don’t know where we’re going to land numerically and, yes, there are many predictions that it could end up in some situation where we would have a say. All I know is that I want the Tories out.”

Something for Keir Starmer to conjure with – perhaps the Lib Dem spring conference numbers will be bolstered by one extra viewer from North London this year.

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