NEW POLL: were the Lib Dems right to stage Commons Euro referendum walk out?

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2008

In the two hours since LDV posted Newsflash: Lib Dems walk out of House of Commons – in protest at the Deputy Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote on the party’s proposal there should be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – the debate has raged in the comments thread: did our MPs do us proud by showing their anger at the denial of such an important issue being debated and voted on; or was it juvenile gesture politics designed to distract from the opposition of the likes of David Heath to the party line?

Well, here’s your chance to make your feelings clear – an LDV poll asking: “Were Lib Dem MPs right to walk out of the House of Commons in protest at the refusal to debate the party proposal for an ‘EU – in or out’ referendum?” Simple question, simple answer: yes or no. You can vote using the poll displayed in the right-hand column.

My view? Well, of course this was grandstanding politics: I’d be amazed (and disappointed) if the tactics weren’t discussed in advance. So what? Does any Lib Dem – do any of our critics – imagine that the party’s views would have been reported if our MPs had just sat there in stony-faced silence? Would that have somehow sent a dignified message? Or would it simply have been ignored by everyone?

It is clearly absurd that the Lib Dems should not be free to have debated in Parliament whether there should be a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the EU. For what it’s worth, I think the party has been mistaken to oppose a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, especially given we championed a referendum on Maastricht in the teeth of Tory opposition in 1993.

But I find Tory attacks on the Lib Dem stance hard to take seriously… If it were the Tory party putting forward the proposal for an ‘in or out’ EU referendum, their members would be ecstatic. And if Parliament’s arcane procedures barred them from having such a proposal discussed, the right-wing blogosphere would have exploded by now in self-righteous indignation.

So, yes there should be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But we all know that – whatever answer is given by the public, whether yes or no – such a vote will not settle the larger argument: do the British people want to be EU members any more, and, if so, what kind of EU do they support? The only means by which that debate can be fully had is through a referendum campaign in which proper attention can be focused on the competing claims and counter-claims.

The Lisbon Treaty is just the latest in a succession of EU treaties which affect the everyday lives of the British people. Far better that they are all debated than that we fixate on one just one aspect. That this argument cannot be made in Parliament is just one of the reasons why our Parliamentary system no longer enjoys the confidence of the public.

We would not be discussing this today unless the Lib Dems had today stuck up for the rights of the British people to be able to debate such a crucial issue. I want the party to be spiky, edgy, radical. So do most members, I reckon. Well, that’s what we’re getting. Good.

Result of last poll:

We asked Lib Dem Voice readers: “Is the Archbishop of Canterbury right to say that adoption of Sharia law is unavoidable?” Here’s what you said:

• Yes – 63 (16%)
• No – 322 (84%)
Total Votes: 385. Polling from 8th-26th Feb, 2008.

Pretty clear-cut, really.

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No comments

What a joke! What a party? Keep it up losers!!

by davy on February 26, 2008 at 8:51 pm. Reply #

Ooh, are we a cross, disappointed Tory, davy?

Agree with every word, Stephen.

by Alix on February 26, 2008 at 8:53 pm. Reply #

Except we haven’t walked out – there’s still been at least one MP there when I’ve flicked over to BBC Parliament.

I’m not watching as Bill Cash is on his feet and I’ve not got a problem sleeping… 🙂

by Hywel Morgan on February 26, 2008 at 8:54 pm. Reply #

It hardly matters a great deal, but on balance I would say we were wrong.

by Laurence Boyce on February 26, 2008 at 8:55 pm. Reply #

More of this please…

Fantastic news… It’s makes me proud to be a Lib Dem

Again…we want more of this type of campaigning…well done all involved.

by rob b on February 26, 2008 at 9:02 pm. Reply #

Very good indeed. But if we do it only this once it will be futile. The speaker rules against us so often it is about time the parl’y party stood up for itself. I know many LD council groups who wouldn’t have been so supine for so long.

by Kevin on February 26, 2008 at 9:42 pm. Reply #

They really should have known that this measure was not even within the remit of discussion on the Lisbon Treaty and so the deputy speaker was quite correct in disallowing the amendment. Still no doubt it will play well at times when the Lib Dems try to create a story that the British public were denied a referendum on Europe by Parliament and I’m fairly sure that this was the whole intention. I’m also fairly sure that their manifesto promise on a referendum on the constitution/treaty will be thrown back in their teeth when they try that too.

by Dave H on February 26, 2008 at 9:52 pm. Reply #

Dave H: except that the question of whether or not a country is in the EU is part of the Lisbon Treaty as it introduces a mechanism for countries to leave.

by Mark Pack on February 26, 2008 at 9:56 pm. Reply #

Where’s the “who gives a toss?” option? It’s probably brought some publicity, but really, the LD Publicity machine needs to be working on Brian right now, doesn’t it?

by Jennie on February 26, 2008 at 9:57 pm. Reply #

Mark Pack: In order to leave the Treaty has to be passed, so you can’t ask an amendment to vote on leaving to be discussed until after the Treaty has been passed, not before.

Sort of a catch 22.

by Dave H on February 26, 2008 at 9:59 pm. Reply #

I fear Dave H has Dr Pack over a barrel here. If we’re going to bring the wording of the Lisbon Treaty into it then we would surely have to hold off from having our in/out referendum until after it has been ratified.

But of course there has never been anything to stop us from leaving the EU. All Lisbon does is provide a clear framework (and some guarantees that we would be treated fairly if we chose this course of action).

by James Graham on February 26, 2008 at 11:03 pm. Reply #

Not sure Dr Pack is so easily confounded, James. And as I understand it, Simon Hughes and David Howarth had agreed the wording of amendments on the Bill – including the referendum – which were deemed to be in order by the clerks: but it wasn’t selected by the Speaker.

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2008 at 11:19 pm. Reply #

Btw, the Hansard record of the Lib Dem walk-out makes for very entertaining reading.

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2008 at 11:21 pm. Reply #

… which James is why it’s hardly an unreasonable topic to debate at the same time. And, as Stephen points, out, the House authorities had decided to let the amendment been tabled.

Letting someone put something down and then at the last moment saying, “oh, we’ve changed our mind, no vote after all” is just the sort of absurd way to run a democratic body I’d normally expect you to be criticising 🙂

by Mark Pack on February 26, 2008 at 11:52 pm. Reply #

Come come Mark, you understand how this all works. The Clerk is ultimately only an adviser, and in this particular instance was attempting to come up with the wording that had the best chance of getting accepted. That’s what they did. But the Clerk can’t tell the Speaker what to do; that would be outrageous. It would politicise their office which would be effectively unaccountable.

Amendments get drafted by the clerks every day which don’t get selected for debate. Unless you are claiming that they had a copper bottomed guarantee from Martin that he would accept the amendment, then this is a silly argument.

by James Graham on February 27, 2008 at 12:06 am. Reply #

You seem to be shifting the goalposts of your argument, James…

Earlier you were agreeing with Dave H that the Lib Dem attempt to have an amendment selected “was not even within the remit of discussion on the Lisbon Treaty”. But if the clerks accepted it was in order, then it clearly was within the remit.

No, of course that doesn’t mean the Speaker *has* to accept it – and Mark never for a moment suggested he did – but it does beg the question: why wasn’t it selected if it was perfectly in order?

by Stephen Tall on February 27, 2008 at 12:14 am. Reply #


I’m a) sceptical that the clerks accepted anything other than the fact that the language of the amendment was in order, which I have no doubt it was. That’s what clerks do: they go through your bill or amendment, line by line, and ensure the language is clear and suitable.

The issue regarding whether it was acceptable for debate is outside of their competence to determine, quite properly. If an individual gave Heath and Hughes a nod and a wink, then they shouldn’t have done.

I would also put it to you that the clerks don’t have a monopoly of wisdom (nor does the Speaker for that matter).

by James Graham on February 27, 2008 at 12:32 am. Reply #

In fairness to the Speaker, the Liberal Democrat amendment was irrelevant to the Motion. That related only to specific changes included in the Lisbon Treaty, not to the totality of all the EU Treaties from the 1957 Treaty of Rome up to and including the entire Lisbon Treaty. They’ll have to try harder than this, if they hope to get away with wriggling out their manifesto pledge

The Motion proposed by the Prime Minister:

“That this House approves the Government’s policy towards the Treaty of Lisbon in respect of provisions concerning the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision-making.”

The amendment which the Liberal Democrats tabled:

“Line 3, at end add ‘except that this House considers that, in the light of Article 1, paragraph 58 of the Treaty of Lisbon, inserting into the Treaty on European Union Article 49A which provides for Member States to withdraw from the Union in accordance with their own constitutional requirements, the Government should declare its intention that, once the Treaty of Lisbon has come into force, there will be a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the European Union.’.”

by Another Denis on February 27, 2008 at 2:10 am. Reply #

Personally I don’t see how it is as way out of order as some people are suggesting. The only way we get to invoke Article 50, on the withdrawal of a member state from the EU, is to have Article 50 adopted in the first place through the current Treaty. I don’t see why we should not seek to implement our policy of an ‘in or out’ referendum by seeking to make our ratification of the Treaty conditional on us then invoking Article 50. There will be no other opportunity to get that principle enshrined before at least the next general election I’d say.

by Jock on February 27, 2008 at 2:29 am. Reply #

James: but the House authorities do more than say, “is this wording clear?”; they also judge whether the wording is within the rules for debate, which covers a whole host of factors – including whether it is sufficiently relevant to the topic to be in order.

And they decided it was – which is one of the reason why the Liberal Democrat MPs repeatedly protested at the Deputy Speaker’s suggestion that the issue is raised through “the normal channels” – because the wording had gone back and forth numerous times already to get to a point where the House authorities were happy to accept it.

by Mark Pack on February 27, 2008 at 8:00 am. Reply #

Jock says: “… The only way we get to invoke Article 50, on the withdrawal of a member state from the EU, is to have Article 50 adopted in the first place through the current Treaty.”

The UK has always been able to leave the EU at any time it chooses, without Article 50. What do you think would have happened if the 1975 referendum had resulted in a “no” vote? The papers with contingency plans for withdrawal in that event are in the National Archives.

The purpose of Article 50 is to make withdrawal of a member state a matter of EU law, rather than national law, and therefore subject to the (at least tacit) approval of the ECJ. Rather than facilitating withdrawal, it is in fact an attempt to impede it.

by Another Denis on February 27, 2008 at 8:42 am. Reply #

Just to reinforce what Mark Pack says. The amendment was 100 per cent in order and had been agreed to be so by the clerks. It would not have been able to be tabled if it had not been.

I find it astonishing that nowhere is it set out the criteria the Speaker uses in selecting amendments. It really does seem to be completely Speaker’s discretion, with the only sanction at the end of the day being the ultimate one of removing the Speaker, if MPs are sufficiently unhappy with him/her.

In the circumstances it is not surprising that I have heard it suggested that the Speaker decided it was in his best interests to keep the Labour and (especially) Conservative front benches sweet at the cost of p*ssing off the Liberal Democrats on this occasion.

by George C on February 27, 2008 at 10:40 am. Reply #

George: we simply cannot claim that the Speaker is unimpeachable on a Monday, as Clegg did, and then argue the toss over something like this on a Tuesday. Either we trust the man’s ability to perform his job or we don’t. Which is it?

by James Graham on February 27, 2008 at 10:54 am. Reply #

James: but that isn’t what the party had said on Monday. For example, Nick Clegg talked about “a bit of a witch hunt” over expenses. That’s not exactly the same as the wording you’ve used is it?

by Mark Pack on February 27, 2008 at 11:36 am. Reply #

I suggest this is getting slightly esoteric and away from the main point. In practice it doesn’t matter what our theoretical stance vis-a-vis the speaker’s/clerk’s power remit is. The main line from the MPs was that Ed D was angry and it was a bad day for British democracy, not that the procedure of the house was in doubt.

I’m more inclined to go with Alex W’s broader point in the other thread: “It’s ludicrous . . . that a major party can’t get a major issue tabled for debate. This is a democracy, not a gentlemen’s club.”

On the other hand, this is probably making great reading for constitutional politics students 🙂

by Alix on February 27, 2008 at 11:55 am. Reply #


There are lots of reasons to put the boot into Martin at the moment. The fact that he has lead opposition to moves towards greater transparency in MP expenses for one (the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill came directly from the Speaker’s committee). Clegg had an opportunity to raise this point on Monday; he specifically did not.

My point is we can’t keep playing this game of obsequiously backing the establishment while protesting every time it doesn’t work in our favour. It’s like football supporters chanting “The referee’s an arsehole! But efforts to get rid of him are a bit of a witch hunt.”

All of this talk of going along with tabling an amendment in good faith strikes me as politically naive and entirely lacking in strategic nous. The more you insist on this, the worse it makes the Parliamentary Party’s position sound.

by James Graham on February 27, 2008 at 12:44 pm. Reply #

James, you’re not holding up your usual logical standards.

we simply cannot claim that the Speaker is unimpeachable on a Monday, as Clegg did, and then argue the toss over something like this on a Tuesday

Why not? Questions about the personal probity of the speaker are different from questions about parliamentary procedure. Or, to put it another way, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. It’s perfectly possible that, on some issues, the speaker has been unjustly criticised, in which case he deserves to be left alone. We reserve our criticism for when we think that a genuine wrong has been committed. The alternative would be to cry ‘wolf!’ every time we think that someone might be listening, and I’m not sure how much good that would do us in the long run.

My point is we can’t keep playing this game of obsequiously backing the establishment while protesting every time it doesn’t work in our favour.

I think that our aim here is to change the system, not to change the personnel. Suppose we did go for Martin’s scalp, and suppose that, following a lengthy campaign in the papers, he was removed from office. What’s the long-term achievement here? This is why jumping on the media bandwagon over expenses was not necessarily good politics. Whether or not the people get to vote on the EU is a far bigger issue that Mrs. Martin’s taxi fares, and is therefore the issue to take a stand on.

All of this talk of going along with tabling an amendment in good faith strikes me as politically naive and entirely lacking in strategic nous. The more you insist on this, the worse it makes the Parliamentary Party’s position sound.

So, you’re saying that to have continued to protest after going through the procedure was wrong. But how else are we meant to demonstrate the unfairness of the system? We have to play the game if we’re going to show people that the game doesn’t work. If we never bothered to table the amendment correctly, our claims of unfairness would have no evidence to back them up.

You seem to be saying that we make ourselves look bad by trying to use the system then refusing to accept the result, but I simply draw the opposite conclusion. We needed to do it to prove that it doesn’t work.

by Rob Knight on February 27, 2008 at 2:14 pm. Reply #

Say what you like (and I have!) this is some good press on this issue right here…

BBC article

by Joe Taylor on February 28, 2008 at 3:40 pm. Reply #

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