Lib Dem MPs split on Euro referendum?

by Stephen Tall on January 21, 2010

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.