Over on Lib Dem Voice, Jo has accused me of changing my tune. I disagree, but I will happily admit to allowing a glimmer of optimism cross my mind over the course of this evening as the events of Ed Davey’s protest and the subsequent Lib Dem Commons walkout begin to percolate through my mind.
Superficially, this doesn’t strike me as much more than a stunt. Flouncing out of the Commons only to meekly return to dutifully either back the government line or passively do so by abstaining (the result is the same) is not radicalism. It is empty posturing and attention seeking borne out of a desire to communicate a policy that public simply does not understand and has little sympathy for.
But it has occurred to me that it is just possible (I emphasise the word just – I’ve been disappointed before) that the Lib Dem front bench have actually realised quite what a strong position they are in and are pressing their advantage. If this storm in a teacup were allowed to escalate, and Nick Clegg quite clearly stated to Brown that he must either allow a vote on an in/out referendum to go ahead or the Lib Dems will back the Lisbon referendum, he could come out of this showered in glory. Either the government will capitulate and force the Tories to choose between joining Labour in the division lobby to vote against what would then be the only referendum on offer (indeed a referendum that a significant number of them would prefer anyway) or the government will hold its ground and risk losing the vote on the Lisbon referendum. Either way it amounts to a Lib Dem win (or at the very worst a score draw).
The speaker has upped the ante by rejecting this amendment (rather discourteous given Clegg’s obsequious endorsement of him yesterday). The Lib Dem front bench’s option is simple: raise the stakes or fold. For Clegg to do this he will need a brass neck several inches thick as it will make him the least popular MP in Westminster since Kennedy lead the Lib Dem opposition to the Iraq invasion. It would certainly silence my criticism of his handling of this issue and I suspect it a lot of others would be becalmed as well.
If this isn’t the game plan though, all the excitement that so many of my party colleagues are indulging is distinctly misplaced. The symbolism of Davey holding his ground will look completely empty in the cold light of day.