The Sketch: The art of avoiding an EU referendum

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The Independent Online

Last week the Liberal Democrats had all my sympathy. It may be their greatest political talent – to make people feel sorry for them. Their amendment was persistently rejected by the Speaker; it was all they wanted, all they were asking for, but day by day it was denied them. Now I feel a bit silly. I should have been harder headed. Ah, I dared to dream.

They found a way of doing it. A 19th-century procedural device, "an instruction" to the House in committee, a vote on a vote, a meta-debate about whether we should debate leaving the EU. It made them look ridiculous. The House had already debated the damn thing at the Queen's Speech.

It was all a way, it was said, for the party to semanticise their way out of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. "Bogus and vacuous," one said. "Sanctimonious chicanery," said Sir Patrick Cormack. I can't report my own reaction.

David Heathcote- Amory spoke to his amendments, and I recommend an internet visit to Hansard to get the whole thing. We learnt the history of passerelles in the EU. The sheer intellectual energy of the fellow is amazing, to toil so long in this unrewarding vineyard.

This is his thesis. The passerelle is a device by which the EU's prime ministers can gather in the Council and amend the treaty without an intergovernmental conference or reference to their local parliaments. He suggested the EU's operating principle is "ever closer integration" and that whenever it meets a roadblock, it finds a way round. It has finally learnt not to "ask the people" because the people come up with inconvenient answers. "Incremental change" is now the strategy, and Sarkozy has brought together a group to consider how to move to "the next stage".

We may all differ on the ends, but these means are incontrovertible. "A conclave of ministers sitting in private should not be able to amend the treaty," he said. What democrat can disagree with that?

NB: the passerelles require all PMs in the Council of Ministers to agree to majority voting. Gordon Brown has promised not to give up our veto "in this parliament". Step by step. Gently does it.