Nick Clegg was the surprise main casualty of a heated battle over Europe last night, as the House of Commons rejected calls for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
Three senior Liberal Democrat frontbenchers resigned their posts after refusing to accept their leader's edict to abstain on a Tory proposal calling for a public vote on the treaty, which will streamline the EU's decision-making. Some 13 of the Liberal Democrats' 63 MPs defied Mr Clegg.
Their internal row overshadowed splits in the Labour and Conservative parties on Europe and plunged Mr Clegg into his first crisis since he became his party's leader in December. Some of his own MPs questioned his "back me or sack me" approach, saying he had picked the wrong issue on which to try to display strong leadership.
One Liberal Democrat MP called it a "car crash in slow motion". Another said the party risked looking "a shambles". Critics claimed the rebellion had grown in the run-up to the vote as Mr Clegg's tactics backfired.
The three members of Mr Clegg's cabinet who quit were David Heath, justice spokesman; Tim Farron, countryside spokesman and Alistair Carmichael, spokesman on Scotland and Northern Ireland. Mr Heath said: "We were in a minority and we paid the price." Some junior frontbenchers also backed Tory demands for a referendum. But they are likely to escape with a rebuke, leaving Mr Clegg open to the charge of "double standards".
Clegg allies dismissed talk of a crisis as "nonsense". One said: "Being leader of a party means taking tough decisions and showing resolve." They insisted the party's divisions were "amicable" and it would unite and "move on".
An unrepentant Mr Clegg said he would not indulge in "bloodlust for mass resignations" or have "some great cull" among his junior frontbenchers, but said there would be "consequences" for them.
Hinting that the three spokesmen who had resigned could expect a return to the front bench before the general election, he said: "I'm not banishing people to outer Siberia."
Mr Clegg, who was forced into an emergency reshuffle, said he fully understood and respected the strongly held views of his rebel MPs. But he said his shadow cabinet could not operate effectively without collective responsibility.
Last night, the Commons rejected the Tories' call for a referendum by 311 votes to 248 – a comfortable majority of 63 for the Government. A similar attempt by Labour Eurosceptics was defeated by 64 votes.
Twenty-nine Labour MPs rebelled against the Government, while a handful of pro-European Tories who oppose a referendum, including Kenneth Clarke, backed the Government.
Although Eurosceptics vowed to continue their fight for a referendum when the EU (Amendment) Bill goes to the Lords, there is little prospect of a plebiscite after last night's crucial vote.
The Tories argued that Labour should honour its 2005 election pledge to allow the public a vote on the proposed EU constitution. Labour claimed no referendum is needed because the Treaty is not as sweeping as the rejected constitution.
The Liberal Democrats favour an "in or out" referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. But this provoked an internal crisis when some of their MPs wanted to back the Tory referendum call in order to honour pledges to their constituents. Mr Clegg refused to join forces with the Tories, arguing that they wanted a "no" vote in a referendum to push Britain towards the EU's exit door.
Mr Clarke, the former chancellor, angered fellow Tories by saying referendums had their roots in the policies of leaders such as Napoleon and Mussolini. He said there was no significant transfer of power in the Lisbon treaty, which would benefit the UK. A no vote in a referendum would cause a "deep, deep crisis" in the UK's relationship with the rest of the EU and "yet another neurotic spasm," he said.
But rebel Labour MPs accused government whips of using "strong-arm tactics" to try to quell the revolt. Ian Davidson, a Labour Eurosceptic, said: "Some of my colleagues have had a great deal of pressure put on them. Those that maybe are facing reselection difficulties, where boundaries are being redrawn, those where there's particular constituency issues where a MP wants some support from the Government – those points are being drawn to their attention in a particular manner."