Clegg facing major revolt over EU referendum vote in Commons
NICK CLEGG is tomorrow facing the biggest test of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats with the prospect of a major rebellion by his MPs over the party’s bid for an “in-out” referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Some front-bench spokesmen could resign or be sacked over the issue.
Mr Clegg highlighted an Ipsos Mori poll, commissioned by the LibDems, which showed by “a margin of over two to one” that the public preferred the party’s call for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU to the one the Conservatives are pushing for – a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
The crunch will come when MPs debate the Tory amendment calling for a referendum on the treaty: Mr Clegg, who became leader just 11 weeks ago, is ordering his troops to abstain by way of protest.
However, as many as 15 MPs – a quarter of the parliamentary party in the Commons – are thought to be considering rebelling against their leader with at least three front benchers, including Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Scotland, believed to be willing to resign their portfolios over the issue.
They feel that the original EU constitution and the Lisbon Treaty are effectively one and the same thing and that the party, in its election manifesto, like Labour and the Conservatives, agreed to have a referendum.
Mr Clegg thinks that a referendum on the treaty restrictive. Yesterday, he insisted the time had come once and for all for the UK to settle its relationship with the EU in a referendum on its membership.
He said a public vote now offered a “once-in-a- generation opportunity for pro-Europeans in the Liberal Democrats and other parties to make the full-throated case for our long-term commitment to the European Union.”
Asked if he was expecting 15 MPs to defy him, he replied: “It’s not a figure I’m familiar with.” He said if people defied a three-line whip there would be “developments”.
Questioned on whether he was expecting to lose some front benchers, he replied: “I very much hope not.
“If there is any follow-up, that is something I will have to deal with with the MPs concerned and the Chief Whip, but I very much hope that won’t happen.”
He said his party had made “strenuous efforts” to ensure there was a debate and vote in the Commons on the LibDems “in-out” referendum call – which last week sparked an angry mass walkout in the chamber – and that it was “not too late” for them to happen.
However, Mr Clegg’s authority seemed to be under- mined even further by Nick Harvey, the party’s defence spokesman, after an ICM survey found 70% of LibDem supporters preferred both referendum questions to be put to the public, a proposal put forward by Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow South West.
Yesterday, Mr Clegg dismissed Mr Davidson’s doublequestion referendum as “game-playing” but Mr Harvey, thought to be a potential rebel, insisted the party “would do well to reflect upon” it.
He added: “The objection to a referendum on the treaty is that it would not give people a say on the wider issue of Britain’s membership and previous treaties. Clearly, a twoquestion referendum would resolve that.”
If Mr Clegg were to be faced with a mass rebellion on the EU, then the consequences will ripple through to the weekend when the party holds its spring conference in Liverpool, his first as leader.
Meanwhile, two protesters scaled a crane near parliament to demand a referendum on the EU Treaty ahead of the Commons vote.
Inside parliament Jim Murphy, the Europe Minister, said: “The place to make these decisions is in this chamber, not on a crane above London.”