Sir Ed Davey told ITV News his party is Pro-European but stopped short of calling to rejoin the EU - ITV News' Political Correspondent and Westminster Producer Lewis Denison report
Sir Ed Davey wants to talk about his plan to rescue the NHS and save the economy but no matter which journalist he speaks to at the Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth, he is unable to escape two questions:
Would he return the UK to the European Union if he could, and will his party prop up a Labour government in the event of a hung Parliament?
The Lib Dems leader has been refusing to answer either directly, towing the difficult line of keeping his party members happy while not giving any ammunition to his opponents.
It's clear he would like to re-enter the European Union at some stage but does not want to commit to it for fear of losing voters he may have been able to steal from the Conservatives in those 'Blue Wall' seats he is desperate to take.
And he's been refusing to confirm whether his party would form a coalition with Labour after next year's general election but he has ruled out another pact with the Tories or any agreement with the SNP.
So is Sir Ed ready to make Sir Keir Starmer prime minister if the call comes?
"I've made very clear that there's no way we would put the Conservatives back in government," he told ITV News when asked at conference, perhaps remembering what happened to his party the last time that happened.
Pushed for a more direct response, he said: "I'm not focusing in on what happens after the election. I am laser-beam focused on how we get rid of this awful Conservative government."
“That’s why we’re focusing on the NHS, focusing on the cost of living, focusing on the environment.”
So he is still not ruling out entering a coalition government with Labour - he just wants to make sure he can "get rid of as many Conservative MPs as possible" before he considers it.
His party last formed a coalition with David Cameron's Conservatives in 2010 and lost 49 MPs in the following election as voters punished the Liberal Democrats for allowing a number of Tory policies which they had previously opposed.
But Sir Ed is feeling optimistic at his party's first autumn conference since its poor performance at the 2019 general election and success in four by-elections since then is giving him hope for the next national poll.
Would the UK rejoin the EU under Sir Ed Davey?
Questions persist over his stance on Brexit, with Sir Ed heckled on Sunday after insisting to delegates during a Q&A that he was “campaigning hard on Europe”.
“No, you’re not,” one audience member replied.
Eventually rejoining the bloc is currently official policy, but the leader has been reluctant to speak publicly about this.
Asked by ITV News if he was in favour of rejoining, he said: "That's currently not on the table, as everybody knows.
"We are a proud pro-European party. I've said that many times and I believe we need to be back at the heart of Europe. But at the moment, the issue for us is rebuilding our relationship with Europe that's been so soured by the Conservatives."
The Liberal Democrats' pre-election manifesto contains the clause that "EU membership... remains our longer-term objective" and Sir Ed said "I agree with our party" when that was put to him.
The NHS and tax
Liberal Democrat sources say some national policies have been formed from what has been learned on the doorstep in successful by-election campaigns in 'Blue Wall' seats such as Somerton and Frome as well as Tiverton and Honiton.
That means Sir Ed is keen to talk about taxation and the National Health Service.
He's abandoned a longstanding party pledge to put a penny on income tax in a bid to woo traditionally Conservative voters, with even the highest earners to be spared from the levy if the Lib Dems won power, he suggested.
Sir Ed indicated the burden could instead fall to banks and large water, oil and gas firms as he faced questions on Monday about how the party would intend to fund its multibillion-pound policy platform.
He said the commitment – which dates back to 1992 – 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,” Sir Ed said.
“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.”
And on the NHS he told ITV News he believes a repaired health service would stimulate the ailing economy.
He said: "There are lots of people waiting on waiting lists, having trouble getting to see a GP. If they got that healthcare, they could be back at work. We could get people back to work, which is what our economy needs to grow to provide the tax revenues.
"And so that link between the a better NHS and a better economy is something that Liberal Democrats are gonna be talking about a lot."
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