Cameron suffers biggest revolt of leadership (oh, and some thoughts on the Lib Dems, too)

by Stephen Tall on March 6, 2008

Well, the Lib Dem parliamentary party may not exactly have covered itself in glory yesterday – but at least we can console ourselves with the fact that yesterday’s Commons’ votes exposed the Tories as just as split as ever on Europe. This from Philip Cowley’s excellent

The party leader abstained, but a quarter of his party disagreed with him, leading to the largest rebellion since he assumed the leadership. Not Nick Clegg, but David Cameron.

As everyone examined the damage done to Nick Clegg’s leadership by the largest Lib Dem rebellion in six years, the Commons also divided on New Clause 9 in the name of William Cash. It stated that nothing in the new Treaty of Lisbon should be construed by any court in the United Kingdom as affecting the supremacy of the United Kingdom Parliament.

The Conservative frontbench line was to abstain. But 40 Conservative MPs, including 12 members of the 2005 intake, voted for Cash’s clause. Europhile Ken Clarke voted with the Government in the no lobby. This was the largest Conservative rebellion since David Cameron came to power, involving a quarter of his MPs. It was also the largest rebellion by MPs of any party during the passage of the Bill to date.

Since no-one else seems to be reporting this, we thought we’d better let you know…

Yesterday’s media interest in the Lib Dems’ troubles resulted from two points:

1) the party isn’t usually divided on Europe, so the fact that there was a split in the ranks aroused curiosity. We are a proudly internationalist party which is, by and large, strongly in favour of a reformed, transparent and democratically accountable EU. Yesterday doesn’t alter that one jot. The contrast with Labour’s and the Tories’ disinterest-cum-hostility to the EU couldn’t be sharper.

2) that this was Nick Clegg’s first real test as leader. I’m genuinely curious to know why it was decided to impose a three-line whip on abstention on a Lisbon Treaty referendum. A free vote on the issue would have been perfectly easy to justify, and would have avoided yesterday’s debacle. There must be a logical reason why Nick decided on this rigid course – but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it was.

Ultimately, yesterday’s events will blow over. Yes, it was badly handled, but let’s get things in perspective. All leaders suffer a sticky patch – think Gordon’s Brown’s election-dithering, or David Cameron’s grammar school problems. The key question is what they learn from it. I’m sure that’s something Nick is reflecting on today.