Will Clegg and Davey stick or twist?

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.


  1. Agreed. If there wasn’t a gameplan at lunchtime, I sure hope there’s one now. It does occur to me that yesterday’s endorsement of the speaker will have disabled one possible line of attack which we might otherwise now be faced with. If Clegg had expressed doubts about him yesterday and today one of his front benchers was thrown out, that might have amounted to a feud narrative between Lib Dems and the Chair (at least to a desperate Tory).

  2. James, I agree with the first two paragraphs of your post, but the rest seems way, way too far-fetched to be realistic.

    I am ashamed of our so-called parliamentary representatives today. It is bad enough that the Clegg clique persists in pushing this policy which is neither logical nor defensible, worse still to threaten demotion for any spokesperson who sees through it, but to storm out of the chamber in some undergraduate-style protest politics beggars belief.

    Albeit that I had massive reservations about Clegg’s competence, as with any new leader he had the opportunity to create an impression in the public mind (not least because so few members of the public had already heard of him). It would have been the perfect opportunity to forget this relic of the Campbell era and adopt something better. Alas, the EU membership referendum is being pursued with the zeal of an Orange Book convert. Laws tried to push the EU membership referendum on a recent edition of Question Time. Not only was there no-one in the audience willing to applaud, he was roundly booed. I would have booed.

    The public are not convinced that the Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty are different to any material degree, and as one of the rare people who has studied EU law and who has read both texts, they are correct to be sceptical about that. We made a promise to hold a referendum on the Constitution. The Lisbon Treaty is the Constitution in all material respects. Parties should stick to their promises. End of story.

    However, sticking with this unpopular policy, a reversal from our manifesto, risks saddling Clegg with a reputation as a backslider. That would be bad enough, but today’s events cement an impression of us in the public mind as being in the same vein as the Trotskyites, the BNP and the Loonies. This will have longstanding repercussions: the threat to disobey the law on ID cards now looks, in this context, like juvenile posturing, rather than a principled stand against legislation which should never have been passed. There is almost nothing that Clegg, Davey, Laws et al can do to salvage their credibility with me.

  3. Derek,

    I’m not entirely unsympathetic to your position and am perfectly willing to accept that my speculation above may be pie in the sky. But where I’m a little less convinced is in your blame Clegg and the Orange Bookers line.

    There was not a fag paper between Clegg and Huhne on this issue during the leadership election, and this walkout today is a perfect example of the sort of ‘sharp elbowed’ practices that Huhne was advocating. My question to you, as an erstwhile vocal Huhney Monster is this: if Huhne had been elected, what would we be doing different on this issue now?

  4. Has anybody seriously considered the consequences of the different options for the European Union as a whole?

    And, if only narrow nationalistic arguments are allowed, what would be the result for Great Britain’s standing and interests in Europe?

    A ‘no’ vote by the UK Parliament or in a British referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would, it seems, sabotage the EU reform process for the other 26 potential ratifying member states and 430 million EU citizens.

    What would be the fallout of that?

    If, having ratified the Treaty of Lisbon, the UK decided on the virtues of a referendum on membership, the wisdom of this choice, as well as the results, would lie squarely with Britain.

    The government’s option seems to be to ratify the Lisbon Treaty and to let the infected domestic debate continue, while carrying on as an obstructionist member of the EU.

    Are there any more constructive alternatives, if ratification and continued membership are chosen?

  5. James, you’re correct that it wasn’t so much policy difference that distinguished Huhne and Clegg in the leadership election: the essential difference was strategic. Clegg suggested that he would broaden the party’s base, without giving many indications of how, while Huhne suggested that he would get the party noticed more often as this was one of our critical failings (with which I agreed).

    The walkout may superficially seem to be closer to the Huhne line than not, but it misses out a crucial component: good judgement. I’d like to think that Huhne would not have done something so juvenile, but I may be wrong about that. I tend to think, though, that Chris is smart enough to know that not every stunt under the sun helps toward your overall objective of improving the party’s public standing and electoral success.

    To a degree, this is pretty academic now that Clegg has won. Unless he falls under the proverbial bus, or is discovered in bed with a goat, it is hard to conceive of a political disaster large enough which would remove him, particularly since most MPs appeared to agree with the tactics he and Davey adopted. This is the central point – yesterday’s drama was asinine and unbecoming of a serious political party, yet seems to have been adopted as a deliberate strategy by Clegg and his top team (which is what I meant by the Orange Book reference – not a political philosophy as such, but the Team Clegg clique now running the upper echelons of the Party, which includes Davey and Laws, but doesn’t include Huhne).

    In the House of Commons, the phrase “I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition” is so commonplace that it is tantamount to “Good Morning”. The Tories were always going to offer an amendment about a referendum on the Treaty alone, and it was always going to be accepted instead of our one. This is not rocket science, it’s Politics 101: the House of Commons still operates on the principle that there is a Government and an alternative Government, the Official Opposition, and then there are a bunch of inconvenient also-rans. This isn’t going to change unless and until one of the two bigger parties decide by themselves that it should – which is unlikely – or are forced into it by political circumstances, such as a hung parliament. The Parliamentary Party must have known this. In the circumstances, the smart thing to do is to make the argument on TV and radio while the Tories and Labour are debating the “wrong referendum” in the Commons. However, Davey’s antics smack of frustration that we haven’t been able to convince anyone – including the Speaker – that what we call “the real debate” is in fact anything like that.

    I think Huhne would have been more likely to realise that it isn’t the medium which is the problem, it’s the message itself. My evidence for this is largely based on his experience in the environment brief – he was instrumental in devising a new policy, the Green Tax Switch, and the packaging of it which made us noticed, and believed, and actually forced the other parties to tag along behind.

    While I still have plenty of bones to pick with Clegg et al, he isn’t going anywhere soon. Based on yesterday’s events, that is a conclusion of some concern to us all, unless the strategy changes.

  6. Letters from a Tory, leaving aside the obvious import of “flip-flopping” from the US and critical as I might be of the path he has taken, Clegg has been consistent in his argument: A referendum on Europe, in or out, not on the narrower matter of the Lisbon Treaty.

  7. Derek,

    I envy your ability to reduce the problems the party has about strategy down to a factional split between the “Orange Bookers” and the “Huhnites”. Huhne wouldn’t do anything “so juvenile”? Let’s not forget that it was his childish attacks on Clegg over public services that cost him my, and a lot of other people’s votes. I’m also not clear how you can claim he is out in the political wilderness given that he has one of the Big Three jobs.

  8. While Derek Young’s postings include some points worth mulling over, there some rather shakier elements embedded there. The one that leaps out first (apart from the overall semi-apocalyptic tone) is:

    “the smart thing to do is to make the argument on TV and radio while the Tories and Labour are debating the “wrong referendum” in the Commons”.

    Does anyone seriously believe that once the “wrong referendum” slugfest got going our position would get any kind of profile in the media (let alone be noticed by the general public)?

    (That’s over and above any “LibDems split”, “LibDems just adjunct to important parties” unhelpful sub-plots, of course)

    Yesterday’s “stunt” has at least hacked open a little space to assert an independent line in the media.

  9. James, I don’t think that Chris is in the political wilderness, nor do I think that a schism is the source of all our problems. Clegg gave Chris a big job because he had to given the closeness of the election, but I doubt he’s involved in the debates over EU policy and strategy other than as a member of the Shadow Cabinet or an MP. Team Clegg, which ran the leadership election, is now running the Party’s strategy, and (so far) making something of a hash of it.

    Going back, I don’t think Chris’s tactics were juvenile: there were legitimate doubts about Clegg’s apparent Toryism when speaking to Tory audiences, like the Times and the Telegraph. The post-election public services speech was a clear example: the Tory papers were spun a line that this was us calling for the State to get out of the business of running public services. Being all things to all people is a constant criticism of us, but that’s no reason for us to go out of our way to prove the critics right.

    Chris’s tactics may have been counter-productive for him, but they at least showed me (and others) how Clegg would respond to the pressure of an attack, which he hadn’t really faced much of before. I wasn’t fabulously impressed. As you wrote yourself on this blog during the campaign, what Ming taught us was that Leaders tend to behave as they have as leadership candidates. I accept that, and if, like me, you think that the Clegg campaign was uninspiring, cautious, complacent, disappointing and at times confusing, this does not provoke unbridled optimism for the future under his stewardship. But as I wrote before, this water has all flowed well under the bridge now, and the consequences will come whether we like it or not.

  10. Is Nick Clegg our John Major? He rules with a small majority and is trying to appeal to the Daily Mail and radicals, like Major tried to find compromise between Thatcherites and the One Nations Tories, but which in practice only produces a rather fudged, uninspiring and directionless politics? I do hope not.

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