Lib Dem MPs split on Euro referendum?

Almost two years ago, in the early weeks of Nick Clegg’s leadership, the Lib Dem parliamentary party managed to tie itself in knots over the question of whether to support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. In the end three frontbenchers, David Heath, Tim Farron and Alistair Carmichael, quit after defying the party’s three-line whip to oppose a referendum.

Well, Sky News has the interesting story that the party still hasn’t managed to get its line straight and agreed, re-opening that split:

Now it seems to be deja vu all over again, with a new Lib Dem split in voting on Tory amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill this week.

The Tories moved amendments calling for a referendum on any future treaties transferring powers from Westminster to Brussels, a “referendum lock”, as the Conservatives’ perky little Europe spokesman Mark Francois called it.

He goaded the Lib Dems by recalling that at their 2005 conference Nick Clegg proposed a motion, seconded by Vince Cable, declaring: “Any proposals which involve significant change in the relationship between the Union, the member states and its citizens should be approved in Britain through a referendum.”

That was what the Tories were proposing now, said Francois. … “The Conservatives want a referendum on the bulk purchasing of paper clips,” said the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey. “That is nonsense.”

So you might expect a pretty full turnout from Lib Dem MPs voting against the Tory amendment, wouldn’t you?

Er, you’d be wrong. MIke Hancock, John Hemming and Lembit Opik voted with the Tories and only about half the 63 Lib Dems voted against the Conservatives in the key vote at 9.39pm on Tuesday. The rest didn’t vote.

Who was missing? Yes, the 2008 front bench rebels Heath, Carmichael and Farron were among the absentees.

So what, you might say? Perhaps they were detained on pressing business elsewhere?

Well, perhaps. But in another vote about half an hour later at 10.13pm, on a Government motion opposed mainly by the Lib Dems, earlier absentees Annette Brooke, Lorely Burt, Tim Farron, Andrew George, Mark Hunter and Greg Mulholland turned up to vote with the rest of their colleagues. Oh, and so did Hancock, Hemming and Opik.

A split, I’d say.

And so would I.

It’s not the biggest story, and the party won’t attract too much bad publicity: this was an opposition motion, and in any case the media story has moved on from Lisbon.

But, I would have hoped the party might have learned some lessons from Lisbon, and found a position around which the party could unite. It is plain bizarre that on the issue of Europe, the Lib Dems – who are more united than any other party – should still be so split.

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9 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Jan '10 - 11:11am

    I don’t think there’s ever been any party unity on the Europe question, has there? While few Lib Dems would argue that the EU as it currently stands is ideal, opinion seems to be divided over whether we should attempt to fix it or get out.

    The thing is that there’s no particular argument from principle or evidence either way; the heart of the disagreement is whether reform is possible and worth the cost of staying in, which is a judgement call. You’re not going to find much unity over that.

  • Yes, it is a split on the use of referendums, not Europe. But it is a split, and I would not expect a consistent line from MPs in the election on whether we would support an in-out referendum. After all, we promised one last year, we are still in, so if it made sense last year, why not have one now? I can imagine some people wanting to call for one to be able to look UKIP supporters in the eye and say “but we will give you a referendum”, and to outflank the Tories. Those people would campaign for a yes, of course, and would expect to win it.

  • Simon Titley 21st Jan '10 - 12:12pm

    I agree with Tom Papworth. Why tie ourselves in knots over something that isn’t going to happen?

    The referendum policy was originally devised to enable the Lib Dems to face both ways on Europe. It enabled the party to maintain a pro-European stance while allowing some MPs (in the south-west, in particular) to pacify local eurosceptic opinion. It was an act of moral cowardice and it has come back repeatedly to bite the party in the bum.

    The Lisbon Treaty is a done deal so no referendum would have any effect on it. There will be no new treaty for the foreseeable future because there is no appetite for it anywhere in Europe. The EU has been tangled in constitutional arguments for years, there is huge relief that this process is finally over, and there is now an understandable urge to focus on ends rather than means.

    Not only will there be no new treaties about which one might stage a referendum, but the Lib Dem proposal for an in/out referendum isn’t going to happen either.

    In the next parliament, a huge Tory split will open up on Europe, not between europhiles and eurosceptics, but between pragmatists (who will try to do business within the EU) and eurosceptic idealists (who will advocate disruptive behaviour as a prelude to withdrawal).

    The Lib Dems should aim to exploit this Tory split and not distract themselves with pointless splits of their own.

  • I agree with Frank – people voted for the Lib Dems as a result of our promise of an in-out referendum, and to silently drop that now is a betrayal of those people.

    I’m a Eurosceptic – I’m neither pro-Europe nor anti-Europe; I’m happy to hear arguments on both sides, but feel that concentrating power in Europe is against our value of devolving power. I’d like to see more tough talk from the party on Europe – what would we reform, what would we improve, what powers do we agree with giving to Europe and what powers do we want to keep for ourselves.

    I feel that a credible, principled line on Europe would be a good sell for us as a party. I also feel that MEPs like Chris Davies have such a line, but we’re not selling it to the public very well.

  • “people voted for the Lib Dems as a result of our promise of an in-out referendum,”

    I would be surprised if that was true. Firstly, the pledge was on the EU constitution, not in or out, that came later.
    Secondly, people wanting a referendum on the whole want to leave the EU.

    That said, having promised a referendum on the EU constitution, it was stupid to oppose one for the Lisbon Treaty.
    Worse still, it was one of the first acts, and thus defining moments of Cleggs leadership.

    Had we supported a referendum, then Nick could have appeared on platforms with Brown, Ken Clarke and others putting the case for a yes vote. As it was, he ingrained the sense that he was much like any politician, and frankly mealy mouthed. No wonder the unpopularity of the other main parties hasn’t benefited the lib dems.

    Although there is logic to the in-out referendum, it is a dangerous game to play. It is quite likely a NO vote would win, and not because people really want to leave. The proper question is not in or out, as most people really want to be in, the proper question is what type of EU. That is of course a much better question for the Lib Dems to answer – open, democratic, doing things at the most appropriate level etc

  • Maybe Mouse, that most who want an in/out referendum in the electorate do want out. That is not the case, however, with Nick Clegg and other proponents in the Lib Dems. The argument is (with an unspoken assumption that Yes would win) that it would “lance the boil”, ie effectively shut up the opponents and disruptors, at least for a few years. It would also give the Tories enormous problems internally. The worry with this argument of course, is what if No wins? The spotlight domestically would be on us – not only are we (perceived and actually) the most pro-EU party, but we also have the EU written into our constitutional preamble, a fact I always use when arguing with party members who are phobes – of whom there are quite a few!

  • Dave Page – every Euro election we try to do that – no-one listens, and we end up with about half the votes we have in other elections. If you have some thoughts, without ending up sounding anti, why don’t you try to draft them up – perhaps float them here to find out how they play.

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