If initial reaction is any guide, Nick Clegg has just blundered by storming out of the House of Commons with his troops in tow. Ben Brogan brands it a “hissy” while Peter Hoskin at the Spectator Coffee House thinks it is “bizarre behaviour”. They think it is a stunt publicising a “red herring” policy backing a referendum on EU membership that is sure to backfire. I disagree, for three main reasons:
1. It will be covered. Some MPs have been getting a little worried about Mr Clegg’s inability to win media attention. This should do the trick.
2. People may remember it. Unlike a vote on a motion that was always doomed, a defiant protest does stand out. It may be seen as a gimmick in the Westminster village, but it is a guerilla tactic that could play well in the world beyond.
3. The position has legs. Whenever the election comes, most people will have forgotten about minutiae of the parliamentary debate on the Lisbon treaty. The Tories will probably be spending lots of time batting off questions over how they will handle a ratified treaty. The Lib Dem position, for all its gimmickry, does have a life beyond Lisbon: you can always call for a referendum on EU membership.
For those who are unconvinced, there is a fourth point in defence of the Clegg caper. We should never underestimate just how little people know about Lib Dem politics. It is a struggle to get the average Joe to even recognise Mr Clegg. Mercifully few people know there are Lib Dem splits over the referendum on the treaty. Even fewer care.
This means that most people learning of the Lib Dem referendum policy for the first time may judge it on its own merits, rather than seeing it as a tawdry cover for party splits. Hell, if they found out about the walk-out, they may even think the Lib Dems truly believe it.
UPDATE: OK. I give in. My first point proved to be absolutely wrong: the Lib Dems didn’t get much coverage for the parliamentary tantrum. And the coverage they did receive was awful….