For all the talk now of the Lib Dems as the kingmakers, wooed by both Labour and the Tories for their 60-odd votes, it is possible to forget that Nick Clegg is not some shiny, unblemished debutante, but a seasoned politician with his own electoral baggage that could throw up sticking points with both Tory and Labour backbenchers (should Con-Lib coalition talks end in much ado about nothing). Indeed, if there is one reason for the Conservatives to turn around and attempt to go it alone with a minority Government, it’s the Lib Dems’ appalling record on whether British voters should be given the referendum they were promised on the Lisbon Treaty.
The expression ‘flip-flopping’ doesn’t even begin to describe Nick Clegg’s behaviour when the issue was on the table in 2008 (see here for our reaction at the time).
Let us re-cap:
The Lib Dems, just like Labour and the Tories, promised in their 2005 election manifesto to put the European Constitution to a public vote. In 2007, in a bid to circumvent the No votes in the Netherlands and France, the EU Constitution was renamed the Lisbon Treaty and articles were recast, but the content remained virtually identical.
A bill to put the Lisbon Treaty/EU Constitution to a referendum went through the Commons in March 2008 (after the Commons debate on the Treaty was cut short). While most Labour MPs voted against a referendum, and most Conservatives voted in favour, Nick Clegg ordered his MPs to abstain on the vote, insisting that the Lib Dems were instead in favour of a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU. Three frontbench Lib Dem MPs were forced to resign because they felt bound by their election promise and decided to defy Clegg by voting in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
After the failure of the referendum amendment in the Commons, Nick Clegg continued to insist that his party was committed to the idea of a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. He said : “I argued for an In-Out referendum – and have done so for years – because I am convinced it is the right thing for Britain”.
However, the Lib Dems tabled no amendment to that effect when the issue was discussed in the Lords a few months later, and actually abstained from voting for an in/out referendum when such an amendment was put down, and instead voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. If the Lib Dems had abstained, like they did in the Commons, the referendum would have been passed.
With the Lisbon Treaty ratified in all member states, the in/out referendum pledge then appeared to have been dropped, with former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell saying in December 2009 that there was "no public appetite" for such a vote since the Lisbon Treaty was now in force. However, the pledge then re-appeared in party’s election manifesto.
Absolutely extraordinary. Perhaps we have too high expectations, but should politicians – particularly those who profess to want to ‘clean up politics’ and reconnect with voters – really get away with this kind of schizophrenic behaviour, which leaves voters wondering exactly where they stand on their manifesto pledges?
If we can put aside any potential uncertainty in having a less-than-secure minority Government in place for at least a year and that is a big If – (for injecting confidence in the economy and for the ability of the UK to influence what’s happening in Brussels at the moment), this would be as good a reason as any for David Cameron to go it alone – not least since a key challenge for MPs over the life of the next Parliament is to be able to restore trust in politics.
On a similar, but distinct, question of referendum promises, Nick Clegg spent last week doing some serious backpedalling in a bid to try and distance his party from their pledge to join the euro, which they featured slap band in the middle of their election manifesto.
On Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show last week, Nick Clegg couldn’t have distanced himself from all of his previous talk of the benefits of ‘anchoring’ our currency to the euro any faster. When asked by Vine: “Of course, but just to bring you back as it is quite important this – because you did want us in the single currency in 2003, and the other two didn’t, and you don’t want us in now, and so I’m just checking that you accept you’ve changed your mind”, Clegg said:
“No, let me be clear – in the 2005 General Election, which was the general election which counts, we did not recommend, as we’re not recommending now, that we should go into the euro. We are saying that there may be economic circumstances, and by the way the Labour government under Gordon Brown’s tests has said something very similar, there may be circumstances where you can imagine that might be the case. It’s not for now, we’re not recommending it for now, we would only ever recommend it if it was good for the British economy, not out of sentiment, because it’s good for savings and jobs and so on.”
Quite clearly “there may be circumstances where you can imagine that might be the case”, is not the most ringing endorsement for joining the single currency ever to pass one’s lips, and yet their official position remains that joining the euro is in the long term interests of the UK? Perhaps the events of the weekend may be enough to convince some of them that such a scenario would never come to pass.