Stephen Tall has recently been promoting the fact on Lib Dem Voice that the Lib Dems only ever promised a referendum on membership of the EU when there was a fundamental change in the relationship.
Stephen is absolutely right about that. That has been the line since 2007 and it hasn't really changed since then.
But he is also wrong. Wrong in that the fact he is right is largely beside the point.
We called for an in/out referendum. I remember our spokespeople before the last election saying things like "It's about time the British people had their say" and "We think the real question should be in or out". I also remember Clegg referring to those who were questioning this as cowardly. 4 years ago he wrote a piece that included these comments:
"..time for a debate politicians have been too cowardly to hold for 30 years - time for a referendum on the big question. Do we want to be in or out?"and:
"This generation deserves its chance to say where we stand on Europe - in or out."
To most people's minds those sort of statements are pretty unequivocal. If we row back from them now we look shifty and like we are the ones who are cowards.
Guido and others have been making hay in recent days with Lib Dem leaflets from a few years back that called for a referendum. There were no caveats attached and we were clearly trying to neutralise Europe as an issue in order to win votes from those who might want to vote "out".
So whilst on a technicality we might be able to point to the fact that the context was in discussions around the Lisbon treaty and how if there was going to be a referendum on that treaty we'd be better off with it being an in/out referendum. But that won't cut much ice with most people. There are too many on the record Lib Dem statements of how "the people should decide". We look like we are backing away from a referendum.
One final point. This referendum is going to happen. It is a racing political certainty. The time has come. As Clegg pointed out in that piece nobody under the age of 51 (now 55) has ever voted on membership of the EU/EEC. If it is inevitable as it is, far better to be on the side of those calling for it from a strong principled position rather than looking like the shifty bunch who called for a referendum a few years back but now are denying that's what they really meant. During any referendum campaign "they never wanted to have this vote in the first place" will form a plank of the "out" campaign. We're giving them unnecessary free ammunition.
We've already dug a hole for ourselves here. We need to get out of it and accept we called for a referendum. Not keep wriggling on the hook. We have precious little political capital left. We should not be spending it on this futile exercise.