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27 February 2008

Expelled from the House

Ed Davey on the procedures that led to his explusion from yesterday's Commons debate on Britain's fu

By Ed Davey

Last Tuesday I found myself, for the first time, on the wrong end of Standing Order 43. This is a direct order from the Speaker to leave the House of Commons. It is a rare occurrence on the Liberal Democrat benches. We respect and value the rules of the House. We do not like getting thrown out. We want our voice heard in every debate.

But that is why I and my colleagues were so angry. Because of arcane parliamentary procedures, a key Liberal Democrat amendment on a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU was not selected. As pro-Europeans, we want this vote to settle the European issue once and for all and draw the poison from British politics. A British “Yes” would finally enable the country to put the national interest first, without having to appease the press barons and eurosceptic campaign groups.

It is not unusual for the Liberal Democrats to be squeezed out by the cosy, duopolistic establishment at Westminster. But on this occasion, there was genuine outrage at the decision. Firstly, we had played by the parliamentary rules all the way. Indeed, we worked hard over many weeks with the clerks of the House to ensure that our amendment was in order and within the scope of the debate. We were told that it was.

Secondly, throughout weeks of debate, the Tory front and back benches have tabled reams of amendments. By comparison, as supporters of the Lisbon Treaty, we have tabled few. The Conservatives have had hours to tell their camp-fire ghost stories about the supposed threats to sovereignty from the Lisbon Treaty. Yet the Liberal Democrats, a party supported by six million voters in 2005, have been denied one simple vote on one simple proposition.

In 2005 all three main parties were committed to a referendum on the EU Constitution. The current debates in the House must surely be permitted to re-examine those commitments in the light of the new Lisbon Treaty and the abandonment of the Constitution. Yet the denial of our amendment now leaves a gaping hole in the democratic process.

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Charles Kennedy made it very clear at the time that the Liberal Democrat commitment to a referendum was, as much as anything else, the opportunity for a referendum on British membership. The Constitution presented a clear opportunity for the first public referendum since 1975. Here was the corpus of EU rules, policies and procedures, stretching back to the founding Treaty of Rome and encompassing the huge changes of the Single European Act and Maastricht. A vote on the Constitution was a vote on the EU in its entirety.

And the Constitution was different. Fundamentally, it would have given the EU a single constitutional text for the first time. Ironically, it was William Hague who best captured this key point. In June 2006 he told eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe, “the fact that it was a Constitution not simply a treaty, would have revolutionised the EU.” Now, a strange selective amnesia is apparent and Hague believes the Lisbon Treaty and the Constitution are indistinguishable.

The reality is that the Tories have simply reverted to their default position on EU treaties. As Ken Clarke said last year, “the Eurosceptics will have demanded a referendum just about the date on the top of the piece of paper”. Ever since William Hague was leader they have indeed demanded referendums on every change – on the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and now Lisbon.

That is why our call for a referendum on membership should have been given the time of day in Westminster. The Government too should not have run scared of its own pledge to have a “once and for all” referendum. In the first vote on Europe since 1975 Liberal Democrats would lead the charge and make the case for Europe. The achievements speak for themselves – historic peace, prosperity and democracy and the means to tackle common problems like crime, terrorism and climate change. But that all depends on our full commitment to the EU, and that is the question that should be put before the people.

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