Clegg faces Lords rebellion over his abstention policy on Lisbon Treaty

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Nick Clegg is facing another damaging rebellion against his stance on the Lisbon Treaty, this time by Liberal Democrat peers who hold strong pro-European views.

They will warn him that they will not accept his policy of abstaining on Tory demands for a referendum on the treaty when the Bill implementing it is debated in the Lords later this month. They will vote against a referendum even if he orders them to abstain.

Thirteen Liberal Democrat MPs who back a referendum defied their leader by supporting the Tories when the Commons voted on the European Union (Amendment) Bill on Wednesday. They included three senior frontbenchers who had to resign, plunging Mr Clegg into his first crisis since he succeeded Sir Menzies Campbell in December.

In the Lords, the 78 Liberal Democrat peers are pivotal as no party has a majority. If they abstained, it would be much easier for Tory peers to win a referendum, creating a showdown between Lords and Commons, which rejected a public vote this week. One Liberal Democrat source said: "Most peers are appalled at suggestions they will be told to abstain. They are not prepared to sit on their hands and let the Eurosceptics win a vote for a referendum." Another said: "We don't have the luxury of abstaining in the Lords because we hold the balance of power. It would go against everything we stand for on Europe."

Party insiders said their peers were not hostile to Mr Clegg, saying he inherited a "bad hand" from Sir Menzies, who announced last autumn the party would support an "in or out" referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

The Tories mocked Mr Clegg yesterday. Theresa May, shadow Leader of the Commons, said he had "flunked his first big test".