In a move dismissed from both sides of the chamber as "cynical and premature", Liberal Democrats tried to lure Euro-sceptics to a motion calling for a referendum on any proposals for closer European union.
"If a referendum flushed out those closet Europhobes in the Cabinet it would be doing us a very great favour," Mr Ashdown told the House. But the Liberal Democrat leader got no favours from the Labour leadership which imposed only a minimum whip on its MPs, thus reducing the threat to the Government in the vote.
Joyce Quin, a junior Labour frontbencher, said the motion was confused and criticised the Lib Dems for not fully discussing it with other parties.
In fact, a leaked memorandum reported in yesterday's London Evening Standard confirmed divisions within the Liberal Democrats over a referendum. Two senior figures, Lord Jenkins and Sir Russell Johnston, were "not terribly enthusiastic" about the idea, Ms Quin said, with a touch of understatement.
Opening the debate, Mr Ashdown said the Tories were divided from end to end over Europe. "The battleground of Europe has been ceded to a tiny minority of the Tory right," he said. But the debate had to be widened to include the public at large.
"Another attempt to take the people of Europe into a process of further integration either depending on their ignorance or against their will could be fatal to the whole European project."
Reiterating his own vision of a democratic, decentralised Europe with states "pooling sovereignty" in areas such as defence, foreign policy and the environment, Mr Ashdown said the European ideal was bigger than a free trade area.
"European union is the biggest political idea of this century and the most important safeguard for prosperity, peace and stability in the next...
"But it is an idea which is now being forced into retreat through weak leadership and the want of people to stand up and defend it."
With a grim warning of the unrest that could follow, he told the House: "We began this half- century with Dresden and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. We have finished it with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The question now is, can we do better?"
Holding the line for the Government, David Davis, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, condemned Mr Ashdown's motion as "political opportunism" and "irrelevant". The Prime Minister had said last month that the question of a referendum "would not arise" because he would not agree to any substantial alteration of the constitutional arrangement with the EU.
But Mr Davis was left stumbling by Tony Marlow, one of the whipless Tory rebels, who said every Cabinet minister had "their own particular spin" on Europe, particularly the single currency. "Is it possible to be part of economic and monetary union and at the same time to have flexibility?" he posed.
Mr Davis was flummoxed and, amid laughter, said he was not clear about the question. Eventually he said it was "the classic hypothetical question" which, as John Major had said, would not be addressed in this Parliament and quite possibly not in the next.
According to Mr Marlow, the minister is "on the threshold of the Cabinet". But Mr Davis's prospects did not look any rosier as he fumbled well-meant interventions from the former Cabinet minister Sir Norman Fowler and backbencher Barry Legg, seeking confirmation that the option of a referendum on a single currency remained open. He quoted an earlier statement by the Prime Minister, not ruling out a referendum, then added: "I think that is the case still."
Two Labour veterans of European struggle, Tony Benn and Peter Shore, were abrasive about their party decision not to take on the Government in the vote. Fifty Labour MPs still in the House had backed a referendum motion in 1970, Mr Benn said.
Arguing against a single currency, he went on: "I am not working hard for a Labour government so that the leader of the Labour Party, instead of being First Lord of the Treasury, will be the chairman of the British Municipal Corporation, pleading with Frankfurt in order to get permission to do something about unemployment."
Countering Mr Benn's demand for a referendum, Tim Renton, a former Tory chief whip, said: "I believe very strongly that MPs are elected as representatives of a sovereign people, to take difficult decisions on their part.
"If we, in the eyes of those sovereign people, get those decisions wrong, then they throw us out at the next election. That is the basis on which our Parliament has been formed."Reuse content