Dominic Lawson: An absurd tactical ploy – and the paradox of the new Liberal Democrat leader's position

Friday 29 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Nick Clegg is so angry that he has started hurling metaphors.

Following the Speaker's decision not to allow a Parliamentary debate on his party's suggestion of a referendum on whether to leave the EU, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats has declared: "It is like allowing the British public to choose their mode of travel without asking whether they actually want to continue on the journey at all."

Well, if we are to descend to metaphors, here's another one: Imagine you are at a restaurant with some friends, sharing the bill. You have all eaten two courses and are now discussing whether to order some pudding. Suddenly one diner says that the debate should actually be about whether it was a mistake to have eaten the previous dishes.

When he is politely told not to be so silly by his companions, he walks out of the restaurant.

This, it seems to me, is a reasonable description of the Liberal Democrats' behaviour as they stagily stalked out of the House of Commons after the Deputy Speaker declared that their suggested amendment really had nothing whatever to do with the contents of the Lisbon Treaty bill, and therefore would not be put to a vote.

It is possible to have some sympathy with the Liberal Democrats. Theirs is a bleak and arduous struggle to capture the attention of the media. Finally they manage to arrange a notable Parliamentary stunt – and their coup de theatre is simultaneously and coincidentally trumped by five activists from a group called Plane Stupid who had clambered onto the roof of the House of Commons. No wonder Mr Clegg is angry.

Sympathy, however, can only go so far when the victim's claim to be suffering over an issue of high principle is so obviously absurd: the Liberal Democrats had followed Gordon Brown in deciding to renege on a manifesto commitment to a referendum on what was called the European Constitution and now, for entirely cosmetic reasons, is redesignated as "The Lisbon treaty".

Nick Clegg, in fact, had long been a powerful advocate of a referendum on the proposed new EU constitution – whose "substance is preserved by the Lisbon Treaty" according to no less an authority than Angela Merkel.

In a newspaper article chastising Tony Blair for not offering such a referendum – before the then Prime Minister changed his mind – Mr Clegg wrote: "The real reason, of course, why the Government does not want to hold a referendum is the fear that it may lose.

"It is the same fear that led Peter Hain to camouflage the constitution with comic inaccuracy as nothing more than a tidying up exercise."

Nick Clegg, then a Liberal Democrat MEP, went on to argue that Blair had thereby "allowed the Europhobes to shift the argument away from the constitution itself and onto shriller claims about the democratic legitimacy of the whole EU.

"By forcing the phobes to argue on the substance of the text, a referendum [on the Constitution] would expose the hollow hysteria of their polemic."

This is the same amiable and charming Nick Clegg – I am assured that it is – who now demands a vote "on the democratic legitimacy of the whole EU" instead of one on the "substance of the text" of the amended Constitution. Mr Clegg will insist that, unlike those he calls "phobes", he will argue that the public should support continued membership of the EU. Yet in this, he is gratuitously picking a fight with nothing more than the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – hardly an elevated or highly evolved form of political struggle. Now that The Speaker's office has understandably decreed that the Liberal Democrat amendment had no connection to the measures contained within the Lisbon Treaty Bill ( a point which Mr Clegg airily described as "clapped-out 19th century procedure") it would be possible for LibDem MPs to vote for, or against, an amendment calling for a referendum on the Treaty itself. Instead, however, Mr Clegg has imposed a three line whip on his party not to vote at all on this measure. It seems unlikely that every single one of the LibDem MPs will obey this extraordinary attempt to deny them a vote on an issue of such importance.

The party's Justice spokesman, David Heath, has said that he was prepared to lose his front bench job "if that is a consequence of voting for a referendum on the treaty."

Such a split would be especially painful for Nick Clegg, since the real reason why he is adopting this peculiar line is precisely to hold his party together. In fairness to Mr Clegg, this is a ruse which was hatched by his predecessor, Ming Campbell, just before his final party conference as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The idea of a referendum on the Constitution has had solid support from what one might describe as the "Liberal" end of the merger between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party: their historic strength is in the South West of England, where a hearty Euroscepticism – provoked above all by the Common Fisheries Policy – is more or less endemic.

However, the Social Democratic Party was created by ex-Labour MPs – notably Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams – horrified by the way in which Tony Benn's supporters were manoeuvring the Labour Party towards adamantine opposition to British integration into the European political mainstream.

The old Social Democrats had been shocked when Tony Blair, purely in order to steal the Conservatives' one distinctive and popular policy, had suddenly agreed to hold a referendum on the European Constitution.

They knew what Blair, in his characteristically hubristic manner, chose to gloss over: that the public would most probably vote 'no' to the Treaty – and the so called 'pro-Europeans' in British politics would thereby suffer a stunning defeat. I'm told that after Gordon Brown had decided to abandon the Blair commitment to a referendum Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby and former leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords, had threatened to resign and rejoin the Labour Party, unless Ming Campbell likewise abandoned the dangerous policy of giving the British people a vote on the Lisbon treaty.

The artificial and insincere idea of offering us instead a vote on 'in or out of the EU' was Ming Campbell's way of wriggling out of the Liberal Democrats' commitment to a vote on the amended constitutional treaty without making the party look 'undemocratic'. This was a particular concern given the LibDems' constant refrain that it is much closer to the grass roots than the two 'old' parties, which are supposedly more divorced from public opinion (a claim which seems always to survive the awkward fact of those parties' much greater public support).

That is one paradox.

The other is that a Liberal Democrat leader who constantly stigmatises "the narrow politics of Westminster" has been reduced to impotent rage because of the failure of a contrived policy designed purely to accommodate the divisions in his own Parliamentary party.

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