Sir Ed Davey has refused seven times to say whether the Liberal Democrats want the country to rejoin the European Union.
Britain’s fourth-largest party is facing questions about its Brexit policy after a number of conflicting statements from senior figures and a push by Labour to seek closer trading arrangements.
Sir Ed said last week that rejoining the EU is “off the table” for the time being because voters are more concerned about other issues.
But Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, told activists “we want to rejoin” during a fringe event on Saturday at the party’s annual conference in Bournemouth.
A Liberal Democrat spokesman then refused to be drawn on the question beyond saying the party wanted to be “at the heart of Europe” and it was a “priority” to rewrite the Brexit deal agreed by Boris Johnson.
Britain’s future relationship with Brussels has risen up the political agenda after footage emerged of Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, insisting Britain would not diverge from EU regulations if he became prime minister after the next election.
Questions one, two and three
Asked by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire whether planned to “go quiet” on Brexit, Sir Ed said: “We want Britain to be at the heart of Europe, but we’re also deeply realistic about what’s going to have to be done to enable us to improve our relations with Europe. European politicians don’t trust Britain anymore.”
Pressed on whether he wanted to rejoin in the long-term, Sir Ed replied he had been “really clear that Britain has to be at the heart of Europe”, but then refused to confirm whether this meant full membership.
Four. And five
When asked a fourth time, he said rejoining the EU was “currently … not on the table” but, after being asked to clarify his policy, responded: “I really want and the Liberal Democrats really want to rebuild that trust, rebuild that relationship so we can be at the heart of Europe. That is going to take time. We have to take the British people with us.”
Challenged about whether some of his supporters may feel “let down” by his lack of an immediate plan to re-enter the trade bloc, Sir Ed replied: “I think when people hear our policies they really get that we are the pro-European party.”
In a seventh refusal to answer Ms Derbyshire’s questions on the subject, Sir Ed said he was “focusing in on” a four-pronged approach which would see the party rejoin the Single Market in the long term, but offers no clarity on the EU itself.
At the general election in 2019, the Liberal Democrats said they would “stop Brexit and build a brighter future”, promising to cancel Britain’s departure without putting it to a public vote.
But they returned just 11 MPs and fewer than four million votes as Boris Johnson’s vow to “get Brexit done” propelled the Conservatives to a landslide 80-seat majority.
Since Sir Ed replaced Jo Swinson as party leader, the Liberal Democrats have focused less on Europe, instead prioritising issues including GP appointments and the sewage crisis, which they believe can help them unseat dozens of Tory MPs at the next national poll.