Abstention on the Lisbon treaty referendum vote would be a disaster… (probably)

 Warning: great, big, long and European.

 I have been experiencing several days of bloggus interruptus. No sooner have I finally decided that I understand What Is Going On at Westminster (based purely on my own hyper-inductive powers of imagination, you collect, which may explain why at one stage everyone in a half-finished post was wearing superhero outfits) than some new crumb of incident comes my way and I have to pull the whole lot down and start again. Accordingly, we in the People’s Republic take no responsibility whatsoever for our opinion as it stands this current half-hour, for the impact any future reversals or revelations may have, or for any ducks, geese or other waterborne fowl of a nervous disposition who have the balance of their walnut-sized minds disturbed by the contents of this blog.

I am, I think, clear on one thing. The party line is incredibly simple. The Lisbon treaty is not, by itself, the constitution, and a referendum on it would be both historically inconsistent and a pointless gesture – the full referendum, please, so that we can fulfil our manifesto commitment. I write all this out at painful length because I want people to start differentiating between what is clear and what they agree with. Many of those who are complaining about how muddled the present position is are doing so because, essentially, they think there should be a vote on the Lisbon treaty and it is an a betrayal of the manifesto commitment not to have one. To state the gibbering obvious, “muddled” does not mean the same thing as “inimical to me”. To further state the gibbering obvious, both sides of opinion on the Lisbon treaty can make a reasonable case, and I know this because I have been blown backwards and forwards like a dandelion clock by some very good arguments.

It is by no means clear to me that party policy is a cynical attempt to stop the Lisbon treaty coming to a referendum.  This accusation of double-dealing again tends to come from people focussing on the fact that they want a treaty referendum… and anyone who opposes their wishes must be playing a terribly devious double game, non? Scepticism is a totally unhelpful discriminatory tool when it is constantly set to mach 5 – just look at Sean Gabb. Party policy seems to me to account for itself perfectly well. The constant theme is that a full membership referendum is what people want and I think this in itself is absolutely right. I’m not really much more convinced by Clegg’s MORI results than I am by iwantareferendum’s stitch-up, mind. My opinion is based on the simple self-evident truth that most people wouldn’t care about the difference between the two referenda if they were dressed in different-coloured spangly costumes and made to do a dance-off, and it’s therefore perfectly legitimate to assume that the general expression of desire for “a referendum” is a desire for the Big One – in fact, it’s arguably undemocratic not to make that on-the-safe-side assumption.

Now; my reaction to Ed Davey’s righteous rage in the Commons last week was jubilant. I saw things panning out in much the same way James Graham did, albeit with rather more optimistic whooping. From a position of tabling an amendment that would never get through, we had actually seized an initiative of sorts. On the one hand, it demonstrated the strength of feeling at the top of the party – if not throughout it – for a full membership referendum. On the other, the decision of who to vote with, once it came to be made back in grey reality, was now in the balance, and anything that causes a Tory fretting-frothing-barking-shouty-plonker time is fine by me.

A howl of insistence ensued, both from outside the party and from elements within it, that the Lib Dem MPs back the treaty referendum, and for a short time I was minded to join it. The treaty referendum is pretty obviously a decent second best option to the full shebang, and a considerably number of unusually frothy Lib Dems would have been mollified. Even better, Clegg could use the threat of backing the Tory amendment to put pressure on the government to relent and allow the Lib Dem amendment – which would split the opposition for good and all.

At this point, two more messengers burst through the fifty-foot iron gates and into the Central Sacred High Hall of the People’s Republic bearing further news. One, the Cleggster had reaped the first rather-less-than-glowing headlines of his leadership by cracking a thee-line whip on his party to abstain from the treaty referendum vote (“What? Repeat that at once, scurvy knave!”). Two, Ed “Da Man” Davey told the bloggers that pressurising the government was not a realistic possibility, numerically speaking (“What what WHAT? Take the messenger away and shoot him!”). He was adamant that abstention was the Right thing to do with a capital R. Well, that appeared to bring us back to square one, without an amendment of our own, and at risk of looking more than a little precious for putting a clothes peg on our nose and refusing to back someone else’s as a semi-acceptable second best.

At that stage, I couldn’t see the disadvantage in voting for it – still can’t. Either we back it and the government defeat it, in which case nothing changes. Or we back it and it succeeds, the Tories have shot their rather flimsy bolt and successfully killed a wren with it – well done, guys – and whether the referendum comes out as a Yes or No, we’re still quite entitled to point out that the real issue hasn’t been addressed. Because it won’t have been. Particularly if the answer from the Great British Public is a resounding “No”, as seems likely, because such an answer inevitably begs the bigger question. At which point, we appear to be casually leaning against a tree halfway round the course waiting for everyone else to catch up and nick our policies as per bloody usual.

But then the Labour rebel Ian Davidson threw an entirely new kind of chocolate chip into the cookie dough batch with his altie two-question referendum. And then the Cleggster had that “constructive chat” with the speaker. And then there was the MORI poll which, while I don’t believe for one moment that it actually means precisely what we’re claiming it means, is a sign that a wider concerted effort of some sort is at work. Let’s just imagine for a fraction of a second what it would be like if somehow Clegg could stick to his guns and pull this off – table the amendment again, have it debated, take it from there in the press coverage. He’d be a made man, and so would the party, and the Big Question would be addressed.

It’s quite possible that that’s what he’s gambling on. Something doesn’t quite add up about the numbers it would take to defeat the government, because the Tories sound worried enough to bring out the big guns – William Hague in full slag-off mode in the Sun today. Now, whether Clegg is feeling his way in the dark and trying not to lose Baronness Williams, or whether he is pretending to be Gregory Peck in Guns of Navarone and carrying out a nerves-of-steel planned mission, I see no reason why he needs to put everyone else out of their misery just yet. At this stage it still looks like abstention would be the worst thing to do – I’d prefer the treaty referendum to that and I think I’d prefer a free vote to either. But then I thought last Wednesday, along with everybody else, that Clegg should declare for the treaty referendum immediately, and now I’m glad he didn’t. So I’m rather hoping I’m wrong again.



  1. I give this post one of my gold-star shared link thingys, although I disagree with the title … (probably).

    Sometimes supporting either of the other positions is just weakening, and in those cases a three line whip to abstain, well, why not.

    There are good arguments all round, but I would be wary of siding with a dishonestly framed demand for a referendum.

  2. Ooh thankyou!

    The title’s ironic in a way. I mean, I do fully expect to change my mind several more times over the next 24 hrs, but whatever the outcome I just can’t see it being such an apocalytpic disaster as some seem to assume.

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