Alan Watkins: A very curious way of tying us in to Europe

The great Liberal Democrat Commons walkout was not only trumped by the roof protesters – it fell victim to its own folly
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Perhaps it was bad luck for the Liberal Democrats, as it was for the referendists demonstrating outside Parliament, on the very day when a lot of other demonstrators chose to climb on to the roof of the House of Commons without let or hindrance. This lot on the roof were protesting against the expansion of Heathrow airport: a worthy cause, no doubt, though in these troubled times and in other countries many of them would have ended up on the great runway to the sky.

I feel even less sympathy for the Liberal Democrats, even if their angry walkout from the House attracted less publicity than it would otherwise have done. Their leader, Mr Nick Clegg, and their parliamentary spokesman on the afternoon in question, Mr Ed Davey, put up a plausible show of indignation. It is a standard skill of the trade. But it was a show merely, mounted for the most arcane of internal party reasons which, as a lifelong amateur of Liberal politics, even I have been unable properly to understand.

The sparse House was about to embark on another afternoon of examining the Lisbon Treaty. The factor causing suspicions was that an unexpectedly large number of Liberal Democrats were in their places. In the chair was one of the three deputy speakers, Sir Michael Lord. His formal title, if you are interested, is Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. He is a solid citizen. He once played rugby for Cambridge University. Sir Michael announced that none of the amendments put down for debate had been selected by the Speaker's panel.

The amendment in dispute was about having a referendum on Europe. It is certainly arguable that the selection of amendments should be subject to a more open and, if you like, democratic procedure. Mr Davey and, I think, Mr Clegg claimed to have consulted the clerks about their own Liberal Democrat amendment. It was not entirely clear to me whether they wanted advice on the referendum or on amendments in general. Either way, the consultation had produced no satisfaction for Mr Davey or Mr Clegg.

Mr Davey proceeded to argue the toss; Sir Michael became quite cross, and "named" Mr Davey. It is one of the oddities of parliamentary procedure that the Speaker, or, as in this case, his deputy, can "name" the miscreant member without, as far as I can see, doing any actual naming. Sir Michael did not say: "I hereby name Edward Jonathan Davey, and do not darken the doors of this honourable House till sunrise." This is what the philosopher J L Austin used to call a performative utterance. It would have lent a suitably dramatic note to the proceedings; instead of which, Mr Davey and his chums simply shuffled out.

The debates on the Lisbon Treaty can be regarded as one of the few tactical successes of Mr Gordon Brown's premiership. So far, he has kept out of trouble. It has been an ignoble spectacle.

The minister – last week it was the affable Mr Jim Murphy – introduces some aspect of the Bill with a contemplative essay. Various backbenchers make their contributions, as if to a seminar on a particularly boring subject. After some hours of this, everybody goes home.

Sir John Major, by contrast, almost brought himself down by taking on both the Labour opposition and the rebels on his back benches and in his Cabinet (the "bastards"). On the Maastricht Treaty, debate followed debate and vote followed vote. Sir John was proud of our exclusion from the Social Chapter; John Smith, the Labour leader, had the opposite cause to embrace; the malcontents made trouble.

But, as a cause, the referendum has not run. The great mystery is why the Liberal Democrats have chosen to try to run with it themselves. The strangest phenomenon occurred when Sir Menzies Campbell was leader – that, if we were to have a referendum, it ought not to be about the now defunct European constitution or the Lisbon Treaty but about whether we ought to be in Europe at all. The story begins with the new European constitution. This was an exercise in vanity by the former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. It was rejected by the French and by others in referendums. So the Europeans decided to go ahead anyway in a new treaty rather than in a new constitution.

The Conservatives decided to call for a referendum of their own as a wheeze on the still unrejected constitution. Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers joined lustily in the singing (and may have struck some opening chords of their own). Mr Tony Blair was persuaded, or persuaded himself, to have a referendum also, to avoid falling out of love with Mr Murdoch and his papers.

The Labour manifesto said: "The new constitutional treaty ... is a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe. We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign wholeheartedly for a Yes vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe."

The Conservatives said: "We oppose the EU constitution and would give the British people the chance to reject its provisions in a referendum within six months of the general election." The Liberal Democrats said: "We are ... clear in our support for the constitution, which we believe is in Britain's interest – but ratification must be subject to a referendum of the British people."

What has happened since reminds me of an old Muppet Show programme in which two elderly gentlemen in long dresses are dancing with each other. One says: "But you promised you'd wear the pink dress." The other replies: "So I lied."

The Government's defence is that the party promised a referendum on the European constitution and that the constitution no longer exists because it was rejected by several other countries. Well, the manifesto does not refer to the constitution but to a constitutional treaty. The Lisbon Treaty may or may not be a constitutional treaty but it looks suspiciously like one to me.

In such circumstances, it is much better all round to be like the gentleman who confessed to not having worn the pink dress after all. The Labour promise was a consequence of Mr Blair's wish to suck up to Mr Murdoch and Labour's willingness to accommodate him in his numerous whims or even in his considered opinions.

As far as one can see, Mr Murdoch's interests have become less pressing since the framing of the original constitution. The Conservatives may give forth hostile sounds when Mr William Hague rises to make those harsh, robotic noises of his from the opposition front bench. But his heart is not in it.

The Liberal Democrats are the strangest group of all. In a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, or on a straight withdrawal, the population of the UK would almost certainly vote against Europe. The result in the 1975 referendum was, I know, different. It was also unexpected, to begin with at any rate.

If Mr Clegg is trying to cement us in Europe, as Harold Wilson did over 30 years ago, he is certainly going a strange way about it. Bring back Dr Vincent Cable.