Three Lib Dems quit front bench over Lisbon Treaty referendum

by Stephen Tall on March 5, 2008

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) 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.