Three Lib Dems quit front bench over Lisbon Treaty referendum

Well, it’s three according to the Telegraph’s Three Line Whip blog and The Times’s Red Box blog – they are:

* Alistair Carmichael – Scotland and Northern Ireland spokesman and MP for Orkney and Shetland (majority: 6,627)
* Tim Farron – Countryside spokesman and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale (majority: 267)
* David Heath – Justice spokesman and MP for Somerton and Frome (majority: 812)

BBC.co.uk is so far listing only Alistair and David.

Nick Clegg has done a tour of the media circuit to make his case: he was on BBC2’s Newsnight last night, and BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning.

The party’s position is certainly cogent – a simple ‘in or out’ Euro referendum is long overdue to allow both sides of the argument to make their case honestly about why they think the UK should remain within, or else leave, the EU. The EU has changed beyond all recognition since the 1975 referendum, a vote in which anyone under the age of 50 was unable to take part. This is a popular and right case to make.

But two points are still unclear to me about the stance the parliamentary party has adopted (in spite of all that I’ve read on the subject):

1. why the Lib Dems voted for a referendum on Maastricht – unlike the Tories, who have mysteriously discovered the joy of referendums in opposition – but not on Lisbon. This places us on a side of the argument which should make all liberals nervous: that this isn’t the right issue on which to allow the public to have their say.

2. why the Lib Dems allowed our MPs a free vote on Maastricht but not on Lisbon. It is perfectly reasonable for our MPs to conclude that – if they promised in their election manifesto to support a Euro Treaty referendum – they should now stand by the closest they can get to that pledge.

This is not to accept the facile argument put forward by William Hague and the rest of the Tories that the two treaties are both pretty well the same. They are very different beasts. But to put down a three line whip to abstain leaves our MPs with little room to stand by what they may regard as a personal commitment to their voters. It also allows little room for political reality for those MPs defending slim majorities.

I am happy to defend the party’s stance – supporting a referendum on the EU question that matters: ‘in or out’ – on the doorstep. I am concerned at the way our strategy is being played out in parliament.

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7 Comments

  • Martin Pantling 5th Mar '08 - 6:36pm

    My view is very close to your own. With the chance of an “In or Out” referendum gone, a faster footed, more flexible approach was needed.

    Sadly, people will conclude that the reason it hasn’t come about is that were the Government to be defeated, the argument to adopt would be defeated. The tactics have contributed to that impression.

  • I completely agree. The in or out referendum was spot on but our fall back when and if that failed should have been to support any referendum on the subject.

    A three line whip not to vote is preposterous

  • Cheltenham Robin 5th Mar '08 - 7:33pm

    NEWS FLASH

    Shock as 3 MPs that nobody has heard of resign over something that nobody actually cares about.

  • I hate to be an echo but the above comments and the article are exactly what was I thinking. In-out referendum good, three-line whip bad.

  • Vanessa Pine 6th Mar '08 - 10:45am

    Looking at it tactically I’m afraid that I have to disagree with the well argued thoughts above.

    An ‘in or out’ referendum is what we need. However this was not an option our MPs were offered a vote on.

    Instead, making a point of abstaining meant that last night the media were actually reporting the Lib Dem position – in favour of an in/out vote – on all the evening news bulletins, rather than ignoring the Lib Dems althogether.

    If our MPs had been given a free vote we would not have been part of the story at all and, in the eyes of the public, our position on Europe would have been much less visible.

  • Passing Tory 7th Mar '08 - 1:29pm

    >Vanessa

    As opposed to your position on Europe being widely criticised, and the impression of deep divisions on the front bench dominating the news?

  • LiberalHammer 7th Mar '08 - 1:32pm

    The LDs look as undemocratic as the LP on this issue. Rightly or wrongly the perception is that the treaty is as near as dammit the same as the constitution, that was to be put to a referendum in our manifesto. And that of the LP.

    And why on earth do we need a referendum on membership? Let’s have one on membership of the UN and NATO at the same time. Sorry but it looks like posturing, and not very good posturing at that.

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