Tag Archives: referendum

If you can’t stand the Heath, get out of the kitchen cabinet

Brian Blessed as Prince Voltan in Flash Gordon (1980)Ming’s successor, the Emperor Barin, has demanded undying loyalty from Prince Vultan over his policy to block a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Two questions arise from this. Firstly, should Barin have Voltan executed? Secondly, what does it say about iwantareferendum that they are targeting Heath anyway, regardless of his well-known views on the Reform Treaty?

The second one is easy to answer and it merely helps reinforce the point I’ve been making here for weeks. Iwantareferendum is of course a Tory front. Those people out there worried that the UK might eventually see US-style “soft money” derailing British politics simply haven’t been paying attention. In the last election the Tories did a great job at using the hunting issue (another fringe subject) to seize several seats via the “independent” likes of Vote OK. Iwantareferendum is remarkably similar.

Both purport to be democratic organisations, yet both are coincidentally partisan and are about exploiting a profoundly undemocratic electoral system that makes a few thousand swing voters in key marginal constituencies the ones who will decide the entire national election result. If we didn’t have first-past-the-post these campaign organisations simply would not exist. They don’t enjoy popular support and they are dependent on exploiting a broken electoral system. I’ve just returned from Amsterdam. You might expect that in the Netherlands, feelings would be running high over the fact that despite rejecting the constitutional treaty by referendum in 2005, Lisbon is simply being ratified by Parliament. Yet notwithstanding the usual suspects – who are in no fewer numbers than in the UK but who lack an electoral system they can exploit – it simply isn’t an issue for them.

Back to Voltan/Heath, Barin/Clegg is on dangerous ground if he intends to lay down the law here. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of our policy not to have a referendum on Lisbon, the simple fact is that it has not been approved by conference. Both candidates agreed with the Ming line during the leadership election so party opinion was not tested then either. As anyone who has followed the debate on the blogosphere will recognise, the argument over whether to have a referendum on Lisbon or an in/out one is at best finely balanced at worst obscurationist in the extreme. Fundamentally, the public are disinterested in such nuance. At least anti-referendum-at-all people like Jonathan Calder have a consistent, clearly put position.

I have to admit that I assumed that this matter had been resolved within the Parliamentary Party months ago, which was why Clegg was comfortable with taking it one step further and not merely abstain from the Lisbon referendum vote but actually oppose it. Clearly I was naive, but no less naive than Clegg and his kitchen cabinet were being by making this commitment.

David Heath is being asked to stick to his principles and lose his front bench job or blindly follow Clegg and lose his seat. It is absurd of Clegg to put him in such a position. And once again, there is a vague hint that he is doing so out of a desire to look “tough.” As I’ve written before, highlighting our own divisions at a time when the Conservatives’ splits are ripe to be exploited is a foolish course of action.

We’re a grown up party that can manage disagreement without going into meltdown. It is one of our greatest strengths. Yet it is one that in this instance the party establishment, as it so often does, has run scared from. We haven’t had a wider debate on this issue. If ever there was an issue to relax the whip, it is now.

Logical fallacies and euroscepticism

For the millionth time I’ve read this reported as fact:

The new Lisbon Treaty is largely the same as the defeated constitution…

So, for all those hard of thinking journalists out there and everyone else for that matter who seems to misunderstand it, I thought I’d draw you a handy diagram:
EU treaty diagram
You can say that the addition of Lisbon means that the combined treaties are roughly equivalent to the stalled constitutional treaty. You cannot say that Lisbon itself is roughly equivalent to the stalled constitutional treaty. To claim otherwise it to be a fool.

Let’s put it another way: an iced cake with “Happy Birthday” written on it is roughly the same thing as an iced cake with “Happy Christmas” written on it. If you claimed that the icing itself was more or less the same thing as the whole cake, you could reasonably expect to be put into a rubber room.

I know this is the height of pedantry, but it is an important distinction and anyone who contests it loses the moral right to call other people “dishonest”.

What I find most amazing about all this is the way the Eurosceptics have, in effect, ceded the argument over all the other treaties which, in the past, they insisted (with the same level of shoutiness as now) were about to “abolish” Britain. Equally amazing is the fact that, four years ago there was a real opportunity to effectively renegotiate those past treaties via the constitutional process. The shadowy forces behind iwantareferendum and the combined Murdoch, Rothermere and (then) Black press could have insisted on a public debate and a more open process from the government. They did no such thing. Even if you agree that treaties like this should be ratified by referendum – as I do – don’t for a second kid yourself that these people have our best interests at heart.

Block reform to get reform

I want a referendum screen shotWhat annoys me most about IWantAReferendum.com is it’s completely anti-intellectual stance and the way it presents the Lisbon Treaty as the most significant EU treaty in terms of pooling sovereignty in history. Whether you are pro or anti a referendum, that is clearly nonsense.

But I’ve banged on about the nonsense of all this in the past. What tickled me today was discovering this fantastic quote from Aromatherapist Michelle:

The EU isn’t working. We need a vote for force politicians to reform it.

I don’t know what she keeps in her aromatherapy bottles, but it must be something mind altering. Because what she has added her name to is a campaign to NOT reform the EU.

There’s an interesting debate to be had over whether Lisbon is a step forward or backwards for EU democracy. One thing I’ve noticed is that aside from muttering darkly and incoherently about loss of sovereignty and “self reforming treaties”, the Euro-sceptics appear to avoid this debate like the plague. I recommend you pop over to Unlock Democracy and read their guide. Agree with it or not, at least it is an argument about the Treaty itself rather than the staid debate over a referendum.

Referendum Rebels: how far is too far?

The row brewing within the Labour Party over whether or not to withdraw the whip from the IWannaReferendum Three is an interesting one.

Predictably, over at Iain Dale’s gaffer, the cries are all “Stalinist!” even after I pointed out that the only party to withdraw the whip over a vote on a treaty referendum is the Conservative Party and FedUp reminded them about Howard Flight. Field, Hooey and Stuart are being hailed as giants and giantesses of political stature.

But hang on a minute. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their stance, they are supporting a campaign that is actively campaigning against Labour MPs in marginal seats. In the case of Stuart, she is a member of the advisory group which presumably agreed that strategy.

And what is Iain’s view of rebels who happen to believe in something he doesn’t share? Like Clare Short?

If I were a Labour supporter I would be furious at the kick in the teeth she has administered to the Party which made her.

The gulag was too good for her – but what’s the difference?

A couple of footnotes. I observed two weeks ago that IVantToBiteYourFinger.com had just 35,000 signatures on it – in six months they got 5,000 fewer signatures than the Independent got in a month for electoral reform. Now it has 36,000 signatures – this is not a campaign that is going anywhere.

Back in September I predicted that Gordon Brown had a strategy aimed at boring the public to death on Europe. Despite the fact that events took a life of their own regarding the early election – and a May poll is obviously right out now – I stand by the bore-us theory and as far as I can see it’s working (why are the Tories floundering in the polls at the moment just as the Lib Dems and Labour are rallying?).

And before we get too chummy with Labour, we should remember this report by Frank Field of what Hoon has been saying about what the Eurosceptics tactics should be:

“The chief whip suggested we should instead campaign in Liberal seats. I am happy to take that idea on board. I am in the business of ensuring that Labour fulfils its manifesto pledge.”

I’m not sure what’s worse – Hoon’s “principled” stance or his understanding of basic strategy (bear in mind this man sent thousands of troops into Iraq).

Secret plot by Tory donor to rewrite UK constitution by the backdoor

The UK, famously, does not have a codified constitution. We have the beginnings of what is vaguely termed a “supreme court” but it explicitly does not have a constitutional role.

How, therefore, does Stuart Wheeler intend to argue the case for his proposal to judicially review the government’s decision not to progress with a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty?

To do so would not merely overturn a government decision but effectively a Parliament decision (which has not, lest we forget, actually been made yet). That would mean junking, out of a very high window from St Stephen’s tower, the long cherished notion of Parliamentary sovereignty.

I thought Euro-sceptics loved the notion of Parliamentary sovereignty? Of course, their affection for referendums (albeit only on their terms) does somewhat undermine that view, but surely they haven’t let go of their opposition to the idea of codifying the constitution so that it can’t be simply overturned by a parliamentary vote? If they suddenly love judges deciding everything so much, why the opposition for the Human Rights Act?

Wheeler believes he has an “excellent” chance of winning. I don’t, I should emphasise, share his confidence. But if he does, he will succeed in getting the High Court to completely and utterly rewrite the UK constitution from first principles onwards, with no public or Parliamentary debate and at the behest of a millionaire who made his money through the rater morally dubious route of the gambling industry. Isn’t our “flexible” constitution wonderful?

What is a constitution?

It seems I am caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Lib Dem PP’s refusal to back a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty under any circumstances is something I’m not happy with. On the other hand, saying so publicly makes me subject to the fatuous braying of Tory bloggers like Iain Dale and Dan Hassett.

Let’s be clear: the reason the Lib Dem front bench don’t want a referendum on Lisbon is because they are (correctly) convinced we would lose it. To that extent they are being opportunistic, and no amount of soft soaping from Paul Walter or others will change that.

But is Nick Clegg correct to insist that an in or out referendum is the closest we have to the promised referendum on the Constitutional Treaty? Abso-bloody-lutely.

Because the whole point of the Constitutional Treaty was that it was a “delete all, replace with” process. It was a Year Zero approach to reforming the EU. Lisbon, at the insistence of the Euro-sceptics, is not; it is an amending treaty. That being the case, the EU’s constitution is the body of treaties going all the way back to Rome. If you want a referendum on the EU’s constitution, you have to have a referendum about that.

So if you want to get technical here, it is actually more dishonest and going back on past election promises for the Tories not to support the Lib Dem line of an in or out referendum than for the Lib Dems to not support the Tory line for a Lisbon referendum. Far more dishonest.

I think there has been a democratic deficit regarding the EU for a long, long time now. It has left scars and could harm the UK’s role in the EU in the long term. A referendum on Lisbon might help correct that. But the fundamental problem there is that we have a model of strong government and a weak Parliament. Which party supports the status quo the loudest in this regard? Step forward the Conservative Party.

Nick Clegg may not be exactly showering us in glory here, but at least we don’t have a shyster like David Cameron at the helm. I sleep soundly.

Is it time to stop being so ‘inward looking’ about EU Reform?

Stephen Tall writes a fantastic opinion piece on Lib Dem Voice today about the leadership candidates’ stance on the EU Reform Treaty:

Some time soon, the Tories will call vote in the House of Commons on whether Britain should hold a referendum, at which point 63 Lib Dem MPs will have to make a decision – to march through the ‘no’ lobbies with Labour against a referendum; or through the ‘aye’ lobbies with the Tories in favour of one. I doubt I’m alone in feeling queasy at the former prospect.

Stephen is certainly not alone – I agree with him for one. And his lengthy quotes of a 2003 article by Nick Clegg demonstrate quite how far Lib Dem rhetoric about support for a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty went.

But there is another reason why Clegg and Huhne should review their stances. If there is a good example of the Lib Dems being inward looking and obscurationist over the past two years (apart from our current stance on Trident of course), it is Ming’s nuanced, balanced position on opposing a referendum on the Reform Treaty but supporting a referendum on EU membership. He had a point, but it was largely irrelevant and effectively shut us out of the debate. Loyalist to the end, even I felt it made him look like a lame duck, and it turned out I was right.

If Clegg truly believes the party should move out of its comfort zone and reach out to people, here’s his chance. If Huhne really wants to call Clegg’s bluff, here’s his opportunity.

E X C L U S I V E (ish): Mingmeet – where’s the meat?

Sort of an exclusive here as I think I may be the first to write up my account of the interview with Ming that the finalists for the Blog of the Year held on Sunday morning. Jonathan Calder actually beat me to it by about 12 hours but at the time of writing hadn’t given his full account. Either way it’s another opportunity to shamelessly use “EXCLUSIVE” in another blog title and we all know how much you crazy kids love your exclusives.

Okay. By dint of where I had seated myself, I found myself asking Ming the first question, which was about what the party’s narrative is. He both avoided answering my question and accidentally answering my question at the same time. Let me explain.

He failed to answer my question in that his pat answer was that it is being developed by the manifesto team and that Steve Webb is developing it. He went on to list a number of policy areas – particularly the environment – that we would be developing thematically. I have to say that my heard sank at this point. If we are to have a narrative – and I hear no-one suggesting that we shouldn’t – then we should have had it nailed down 12 months ago. As it stands, Ming seemed to be suggesting it would be unveiled along with the manifesto a few short weeks before the election (whenever that is).

But then, almost in spite of himself, he began to answer the question – at least partially. Throughout the interview he kept talking about how it is now “one-against-two” to contrast with the last few general elections which were “two-against-one”. What he went on to explain was that in the past, the Lib Dems and Labour teamed up against the Conservatives; now the Lib Dems are fighting against the “conservative consensus” of Labour and the Conservatives. This is partly because that Labour has become more conservative, but it is also because of the expected tightness of the next election which means that the Lib Dems are now being attacked in both directions.

The fact is, this is a narrative. It isn’t one that I think particularly resonates with the general public, but it does hit the right notes as far as activists are concerned. It makes it quite clear that we are sticking with equidistance. I expect to hear more of this in the speech.

It’s also – I think – possible to tweak to make it more appealing from a voter perspective. The fact is, in many cases we are the only serious alternative to a conservative consensus. We are the only party which is serious about decentralisation and giving away power and meaty policy which spells out how. For the Tories and Labour localism and renewing democracy remain little more than stock phrases. For such a message to resonate however, we need to have a much less managerialist approach to policy during the next election. If we end up with just another long list of policy bites which promise a change in spending here, the scrapping of a policy there, we’ll be stuck with the same sort of dispiriting campaign that we had in 2005.

(As an aside, sadly the feedback I’ve had from the “secret” candidate training sessions on Saturday was that this is not only precisely what the party mandarins have planned but that they’ve been conducting expensive polling that “proves” this is the case. A lot of internal polling I’ve seen in the past has been concerned with proving a point rather than genuine research – polls that prove that no-one is interested in electoral reform compared with crime, health and education for example as opposed to exploratory polls to see how we might better make the case for electoral reform. I have no doubt that a policy bite approach is useful for shoring up support in marginal seats, but it does nothing to reach out to our larger potential supporter base. It leaves us vulnerable to attack if the opposition parties run an effective air war against us if we aren’t taking to the skies at the same time. And you can’t run an effective air war if your “ammo” is ten disparate policy commitments).

Interestingly, Ming pointed out that the then-elections chief Lord Razzall was in constant talks with Labour regarding our targeting strategy and how we might both target the Conservatives. Although I’m not surprised, I have to say it is the first I’ve heard of this. It feels a little uncomfortable to learn that we were in strategic discussions with the war-mongers, but then the Tories were wannabe war-mongers and were running under the most rightwing manifesto in recent memory (written by David Cameron, lest we forget). Either way, if our strategy was to work with Labour to maximise the marginal Lib-Con seats that we won, it was a pretty poor one. Most of our significant gains were against Labour. I’m sure Labour supporters in places such as, say, Manchester Withington, will be delighted to learn that their defeat was pre-arranged with their own party).

Richard Flowers, demonstrating sub-Victorian parental values, kept the Millennium Elephant in a bag throughout the interview (I can EXCLUSIVELY reveal!). While the nominee himself was left to sulk, Daddy Richard asked Ming what we can do to engage with the 40% of the electorate that now doesn’t vote. This was an issue that Ming warmed to, pointing out that there are now more people on the internet in the UK than UK voters, and that the next election could be decided by as few as 800,000 – 1,000,000 voters (I have news for Ming – if the Tories got exactly the right votes in exactly the right places they’d need much less to swing it). I did sense a degree of hypocrisy though in a Lib Dem leader attacking the other parties for focussing on swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of everyone else: what have we been doing for the past decade-and-a-half if not that?

Accepted, our standard response to this is that we would change the electoral system that forces us into this position, but we should at least acknowledge that we are contributing to this disconnect ourselves. If we don’t, then it’s just words.

The two mediums Ming highlighted as tools for reengaging with the disenfranchised I don’t think are that effective. Political blogs like this for example tend to be read by other political bloggers, journalists and political obsessives. My extreme tracking site meter suggests that just 941 unique visitors read this blog on an average month and I could probably list at least 10% of them by name. I’m under no illusions about this blog’s power to engage with the disconnected. I’m rather more impressed by the potential of Facebook and MySpace in this respect.

His other example is literary festivals, which are growing in popularity and at which political meetings tend to be filled to the rafters. This is positive, but it doesn’t get us even close to the NEETs.

One thing the party might want to look at is to start going to places on the internet where there is a lot of activity. We probably won’t get very far by getting Ming on Britney Spears’ discussion forums, but there are issue-based campaigns out there which seem to genuinely reach out beyond the relatively well connected. As I’ve written before, one of those areas is first time buyers, who appear to be virtually fetching the torches and pitchforks as I type. But what have we as a party to say to them? At the moment, the only thing we seem to be saying is that under a Liberal Democrat government we guarantee to raise house prices by another £15,000.

Paul Walter would not, I’m sure, have trouble with my description of him as the loyalest of the shortlisted Lib Dem bloggers, so it is to his credit that he asked what Ming believes he has done wrong in his 18 months as leader. His answer is that he failed to recognise the extent to which the party leader gets engaged with the administration of the party, something which he is now planning to take a step backward from. Sensibly, I feel, he is appointing the manifesto chief Steve Webb to chair the Federal Policy Committee in his stead. I would demur somewhat with his insistence that the party’s press operation is the best its ever been (it might be, but that didn’t stop us from disappearing over the summer from the headlines during which time we launched 5 policy papers).

Alex Wilcock asked why Ming thought it was that despite the fact that internally the party is broadly with the direction he’s taking it doesn’t seem to be coming across to the public, and what he plans to do about it. Ming’s response was to make the very fair point that if you look at Ashdown and Kennedy at the same point in their respective leaderships, both of them we performing as poorly as he is currently in the opinion polls. The problem for Ming is that, since it is now one-against-two, he doesn’t have the luxury that they had to simply give it time. He went on to say that he wanted to avoided the situation under Kennedy and Ashdown whereby the party came across as a one-man-band and so he is keen to share the spotlight with our young “bright and sassy” intake. Much as I agree with him that we have a talented group of MPs these days, I’m not sure this is wise – or even practical. Stephen Tall’s chart of “media tarts” shows that according to Nexis Lexis, Nick Clegg is our next highest profile frontbencher after Ming with around a quarter of the leader’s press. After Nick, our next highest profile “bright young thing” is Sarah Teather with around a tenth of his coverage. So if there is a deliberate strategy to get them to share the spotlight, it isn’t working. And what have we to show for it?

This also rather conflicts with his later claim that if there were more people of his age sitting around the cabinet table, we would have been less likely to go into war. Not if they were all called John Prescott they wouldn’t. I’m not convinced that supineness is linked to age, but if it is, surely he ought to be kicking these young whippersnappers out of his front bench (in one case of course, he has, while the ability of Lembit Opik to demonstrate his maturity earned him a promotion).

Sensing a kill, Alex used this talk about sharing the limelight to ask Ming why he chose to announce policy on an EU referendum a week before conference instead of waiting for conference itself to take a considered view. Jonathan Calder followed this up by asking what point there is on having a referendum on membership of the EU when it was so ineffective in 1975.

I feel the need here to defend Ming, to some extent, on both counts. I’ve always been on the view that the party’s internal democracy (which I strongly defend) should not mean that the party leader should make Trappist vows of silence on topical issues of importance. Politics simply does not work like that; you have to trust – to some extent – the “guys in the room”. Furthermore, while I also disagree with Ming that a referendum on the treaty would be wholly sui generis to a referendum on EU membership, I disagree with Jonathan’s views here also.

My follow up to this – if he had not at this point ran out of time – would have been to observe that Ming appears to get it broadly right in terms of handling the feral beast of the media on the second attempt. I’d have liked to ask him why it is he feels that we have had these blunders – specifically the wobble over Ming’s speech at Harrogate, the delay in informing Gordon Brown that the party would not allow Lib Dem MPs to enter government and this latest EU debacle – and what will he be doing in future to avoid these. Instead, that question will have to hang (unless Ming – who admitted in the interview that his office pays close attention to these blogs – cares to answer it in the space below).

Overall this was a positive event, albeit one that was over before it got started. Ming expressed an interest in doing it more often and I feel we should take him at his word. A few months ago I suggested a similar meeting with his most outspoken critics such as Laurence Boyce and Nich Starling and I would repeat that suggestion here. Overall, Ming came across well as listening, engaged with the issues and generous in spirit. The more people we can convince of this over the next few months the better.

Referendums don’t resolve anything

I hesitate to return once again to the scene of the crime, lest I bore Chris Keating even more (then again, it is my experience that everything I’ve ever said and done bores Chris to tears, so I’m onto a loser there).

This episode has got me thinking because while I absolutely do defend us having a referendum (on lots of things, for that matter), as someone whose job it is to look into these things I’m accutely aware of their limitations.

Paul Walter, honourable mea culpa notwithstanding, is correct to say that for many a referendum on the treaty would be a “proxy debate” for EU membership. But Jonathan Calder is also correct to suggest the opposite. George Monbiot is similarly correct to suggest that both are entirely missing the point. I agree with all three of them.

It is one of the main features of democracy: local elections invariably become proxies for national issues, national elections invariably become proxies for local issues. During the last two European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems spent all their time banging on about crime, health and education. It did them no good; UKIP trounced us. But UKIP were having a proxy debate of their own on membership of the EU. They were completely disinterested in properly representing people in Brussels, which is why they ended up fielding an assortment of the mad, the bad and the sad.

That’s politics for you. But for all it’s flaws, as the great man said, it’s better than all the other options. In recognising this however, it is contingent on us to try and improve it. That’s partly why we Lib Dems call for electoral reform; its partly why we want powerful local government. And it is mainly why I’m hoping to move an amendment calling for the party to look into more participatory forms of policy development on Wednesday.

Looking at the specific area of Europe, and transnational democracy in general, as internationalists it is incumbent on we Liberal Democrats to develop ways to reconnect the public with transnational institutions. The European Parliament for example is notionally very democratic, yet without a European demos, it suffers from a chronic lack of legitimacy. It is given a mandate every five years and then left to get on with it. Many MEPs attempt to engage with the public, but in the face of indifference from both the media and the people themselves, it is a thankless task (I write as a former press officer for an MEP!).

The UK Parliament fails in its role as key scrutiniser of what the Government gets up to in Brussels. Admittedly its powers are more limited than its equivalent in, for example, Denmark, but MPs are not exactly clamouring to be given a more central role. The Government plays a dishonest game of blaming the EU for every controversial directive (including the ones it quietly backs in the Council) while claiming the credit for its better moves (including the ones it quietly opposed). It’s no wonder the public feels alienated and confused about the EU.

So what is to be done? Jonathan Calder’s lament that the Lib Dems are continually refighting the 1975 referendum got me thinking? Maybe it is time we actually accepted that the mandate for something as complex and potentially powerful as the EU can only ever be time limited. As an independent nation, perhaps we should seek to periodically renew this mandate every few years? While I think Jeremy Hargreaves is profoundly wrong to dismiss the reform treaty as just another one of dozens that the UK signs all the time, it is true to say that EU development is evolutionary not revolutionary. Saying we absolutely must have a referendum on Lisbon but not Nice is clearly untenable.

Take another example: the existence of the BBC – a far less fundamental issue for our constitution – is reviewed every 15 years or so. Its charter is reviewed and renewed to take account of new technology and dynamic culture. As such, despite the fact that it is funded by a profoundly regressive tax, it doesn’t suffer from anything like the level of controversy that the EU does. Yet I strongly suspect that if the charter had been engraved on tablets of stone 70 years ago, it would be a much hotter political potato than it is.

So how about this? Instead of blundering along until the whole situation becomes untenable yet again, the UK should, as a matter of course, seek to renew its popular mandate to remain a member of the EU every 15 years, coinciding with the elections to the European Parliament.

It would put an end to this non-argument every time we sign another treaty and put the onus on the political class to ensure that the European project does leave the public so far behind. It would be a new compact with the people which would benefit enormously from its transparency; the silly arguments about the UK handing its sovereignty over the Brussels would simply no longer be tenable. If the occasional tweak in the form of a new treaty were deemed to be required, it would remain up to Parliament and Government to review it, but the proxy arguments which emerge every time one is agreed would have less weight. And in the intervening 15 years we could get on with the job of actual policy making.

I haven’t made my mind up about this, but I do think it has something going for it. I’m hoping to kickstart a debate. What do you think?

Ming toes the Stephen Tall line

Finally, a bit of coherence:

Sir Menzies says he agrees with the prime minister – but as an ardent pro-European he is “not prepared to allow [Conservative leader] David Cameron to lead the Europhobes and their allies in sections of the media, to distort the debate on Europe without challenge”.

The Lib Dem leader, who was expected to face calls to back a treaty vote from some of his own MPs at his party’s conference, said voters should be given a “real choice”.

“If there is to be a referendum it shouldn’t be restricted to a comparatively minor treaty. It must be a decision about the EU as a whole.

“Let’s have an honest debate on the European Union followed by a real choice for the British people. That means a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

“We would ask the British people the big question – whether to remain in the European Union or not.

“I will lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate.

“We will make the overwhelming case for Europe and trust the people to make the right choice.”

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because its what Stephen Tall told him to say on Wednesday.

As I said back then, I’m happy with this position, although I question whether it will fly. If the Lib Dem position fails to get sufficient support in Parliament though, and it boils down to a choice between the Tory option of a referendum or simple Parliamentary ratification, it will be simply untenable to argue that we should opt for the latter. After all, didn’t Paul Walter say it would end up being a proxy for a debate about EU membership anyway?