The Sketch: Some cheerful iconoclasm makes mincemeat of constitutional mess

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The Independent Online

If all debates had that level of swing, Parliament would be popular. There was laughter, tears, thoughtful nodding and a car crash (two Lib-Dem fatalities; by their jaunty demeanour they may not realise their heads are off).

Hague and Miliband are both cerebral, good-humoured politicians. Theirs is a fast, running game, and when they play the man rather than the ball it is without malice. Though I suspect Ed Davey will not be able to stand up in the House for a year without MPs going "Eek, eek!" There isn't room to explain why.

Frank Field (who has resisted Chief Whip Hoon's instructions on a Geofferendum) reminded Miliband that four out of 10 decided not to vote in the election and asked whether the 21 per cent of people who voted Labour would increase as a result of this treaty treatment.

The point was made in many ways. The disconnection between voters and the vast supranational gravy train is now so great it may not be bridged without a revolution. Maybe the gap doesn't need bridging? That's a new idea of government coming through.

In the last weeks, the Tories' big beasts have avoided the elephant trap prepared by Gordon Brown. Maybe it was unwise of the PM to put up a hoarding saying: "Warning! Elephant trap!" Had they gone in, their fall would have been broken by the PM himself. Presumably, Straw took instructions from Brown himself before bouncing Blair into promising the referendum.

It's a tactical and strategic mess. As Ken Clarke was able to say with great conviction: "I may be voting with the Government tonight but I don't agree with any of its arguments."

Hague's simple proposition will resonate with many: "A referendum should be held because a referendum was promised."

Ian Davidson, the man with the rebel amendment, restored the reputation of Scottish MPs with his cheerful iconoclasm. He didn't mince his words, he minced Liberals. Nor did his front bench emerge whole from his machine. Tony Blair had promised a referendum he said (quite unjudgmentally) "for base electoral reasons... we wanted to park the issue so that the forces of darkness opposite" (who chuckled along) "couldn't use it against us during the election".

But all these "nuanced differences" were giving out only one message: "We can't be trusted."

PS: Remember the Government was always careful not to call it a "constitution" but a "constitutional treaty"? Lisbon may not be a constitution but it is certainly a treaty and certainly constitutional. And so we go to the Lords.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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