No EU referendum: MPs vote to deny the people a voice
By JANE MERRICK and IAN DRURY
The British people were finally denied a say on the EU constitution last night after a momentous day in the Commons.
MPs voted against holding a referendum on the biggest shift of power to Brussels for at least a decade.
This was despite pledges from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats that voters would have the chance to decide the issue.
The furious parliamentary debate on Europe plunged Nick Clegg’s LibDem leadership into crisis as 13 rebels - a fifth of his entire tally of MPs - joined the Tories in calling for a national vote.
Mr Clegg, who had ordered his MPs to abstain from voting, helped rescue Gordon Brown from defeat in two crucial votes on the Lisbon Treaty.
A Tory amendment calling for a referendum was defeated by 311 votes to 248, a Government majority of 63.
Some 29 Labour MPs also rebelled against the Prime Minister.
Yesterday’s Commons defeat means a vote in the House of Lords - where the Government could be defeated by Tories and crossbenchers - will be the last chance for campaigners.
That vote is due later this year.
Yesterday’s result will anger the public after 88 per cent of voters in mini-polls last weekend demanded a say.
The Lisbon Treaty will see the creation of a permanent EU president, foreign minister and diplomatic service and surrenders nearly 50 national vetoes to Brussels.
All three main parties made manifesto pledges in 2005 to hold a referendum on the EU constitution - now the revamped Lisbon Treaty.
Yesterday David Cameron taunted the Prime Minister that he was afraid of holding a national vote on the treaty because he knew it would be lost.
The Tory leader told Mr Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions: “All of us in this House promised a referendum. We have the courage of our convictions - you have lost your courage and that lot (the Liberal Democrats) have lost their convictions.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “The unavoidable implication is that politicians are not trustworthy, that Parliament does not see itself as accountable and votes do not necessarily matter.
“All attempts to wriggle out of that commitment will only be seen, and will only be, the weasel words with which a solemn promise is deliberately and calculatingly broken.”
Even pro-European former Chancellor Ken Clarke questioned the Government’s position.
“Will you stop all this nonsense about it being different from the constitution, because it is plainly the same in substance, and explain why it is better not to have a referendum but have it decided in parliament,” he said.
Mr Brown accused the Conservatives of heading towards “the margins” of Europe by failing to support the Lisbon Treaty.
He insisted that the change would not create a “United States of Europe”.
Mr Clegg had argued for an “in or out of Europe” referendum, which failed to even get a vote, leading to questions over his judgment.
The LibDem leader imposed a threeline whip on all 63 LibDem MPs to abstain from a vote calling for a referendum.
But the party’s justice spokesman David Heath, countryside spokesman Tim Farron and Scotland and Northern Ireland spokesman Alistair Carmichael said they had promised their constituents a national vote.
They resigned their frontbench posts and voted with the Tories.
The drama left Mr Clegg, his party’s third leader in two years, facing a difficult spring conference in Liverpool this weekend.
One LibDem MP said the split was a “train crash waiting to happen”.
Insiders claimed Mr Clegg’s hands were tied because the decision to abstain had been inherited from his predecessor, Sir Menzies Campbell.
Mr Carmichael said: “The decision that I have reached, and it has not been in any way, shape or form an easy one, is that I could not in all honesty retreat from the commitment I gave.”
Mr Farron and Mr Heath have marginal constituencies which risk being targeted by referendum campaigners at the next election.
Junior frontbenchers who defied Mr Clegg were not forced to resign but would be disciplined, officials said.
Countryside spokesman Mr Farron, a former parliamentary aide to Sir Menzies Campbell when he was leader, said: “I personally have made an undertaking to my constituents that when this issue came to the Commons I would vote for a referendum.
“I shall do so and I’ll face the consequences. It’s a difficult situation.”
Another rebel, junior culture spokesman Richard Younger-Ross, who did not resign, said: “My concern is and always has been the lack of democratic accountability and centralising nature of the EU.”
LibDem rebel Mike Hancock, a backbencher who represents Portsmouth South, described the party’s position as “a mess”.
He said that while Mr Clegg retained his support, the leader had blundered by not offering his MPs a free vote.
A senior LibDem MP criticised Mr Clegg for handling the issue “badly at best, incompetently at worst”.
But he insisted it would not jeopardise Mr Clegg’s job, saying it simply reflected his “inexperience”.
However he warned: “Lessons need to be learned, and quickly.”
Another well-placed insider said the leader had failed to realise that LibDem MPs were not as sold on the European ideal as the party’s peers and MEPs.
A second vote, tabled by Labour MP Ian Davidson, called for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but would also give the Prime Minister the option of adding a second question - which could be on whether the UK should leave the EU.
It was defeated by the Government 311 votes to 247, a majority of 64.
Derek Scott, chairman of the I Want a Referendum campaign, said: “Labour MPs who voted with their conscience and against the Government deserve congratulations, as do the Liberal Democrats who kept their promise.
“Those MPs who voted to deny their constituents a say should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
“The Government has lost the argument, even if it won the Commons vote.
“But this issue is not just going to go away.”