This is not going to be a good day for the Liberal Democrats or for Nick Clegg. over on politicalbetting.com, Tory activists are one after another taking pot-shots at the party and Nick over the issue of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
Sky News are reporting that three frontbench spokespeople, named as Tim Farron, David Heath and Alastair Carmichael, are all going to resign and defy Nick Clegg by voting FOR a Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on Lisbon. I suspect the true number of "rebels" in the party may be somewhat larger - a dozen or more. On the other hand, and the Tory activists on politicalbetting.com are very quiet about this, at least four and maybe more Tory MPs will defy David Cameron and vote AGAINST the Conservative amendment.
Labour also have their problems with rebel MPs and it all adds up to a messy and difficult day and while all three Party leaders have their problems, Nick Clegg looks in the worst mess.
My view is and always been that we need a referendum on the EU. There is no question that while many British people are broadly in favour of some form of relationship with Europe, there is a growing disquiet/concern/panic (delete as appropriate) that somehow things have gone "too far" and that too much national sovereignty (whatever that means) has been given away without consultation to Brussels.
Of course, no one believes for a nanosecond that any referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would have anything to do with the minutiae of the Treaty itself. It would be a referendum based on people's perception (accurate or otherwise) of what the EU is and what Britain's political relationship is. There's little doubt that decades of continuous anti-EU propaganda have left a serious sense of distrust in British public opinion but the EU has done little or nothing to counter this torrent of negative publicity.
The other side of this question is the degree to which politicians and parties should be accountable for the promises they make. The Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2005 gave an unequivocal commitment to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (as did both the Labour and Conservative manifestos). Now, one could argue that holding any Party in 2008 to a commitment made in a rejected Manifesto seems unnecessarily harsh but that isn't really the point as Nick Clegg should have realised.
Clegg's response has been to try and rationalise his way out of it and, to be fair, the Lib Dem position is probably more coherent than the Conservative position and I think it's fair to ask, given the disastrous non-negotiation stance of the Major Government from 1995-97, how and in what way a future Conservative Government would comport itself with regard to the rest of Europe. There may be serious distaste for the EU but I doubt anyone wants us to be America's lapdog as we have appeared to be in recent times.
The problem with trying to be rational about Europe is that most people have gone beyond reason when it comes to Europe and the EU. Decades of media-induced mistrust have left such an ingrained sense of illwill that trying to have a sensible argument with most other people over Europe is pointless. Manifesto commitments which on other issues wouldn't matter become totemic when it comes to Europe and this is where Nick Clegg has got it wrong. The politics of the current situation defy any rational analysis.
People are screaming for a referendum because they either want to have an ill-informed rant about Europe, kick the Government or hope it will begin the process by which we leave the EU altogether (delete as appropriate). National interest has been sacrificed on the altar of short-term political opportunism. If we accept that we need to redefine our political and economic relationship with the EU, then that needs to happen in a calm atmosphere and with a clear sense of what kind of relationship we want and that's where the pro-referendum coalition falls apart.
There are those who want out of the EU completely, those who want an EFTA-like relationship and those who are enthausiastic about Europe but recognise the need for democratic and polular assent on the journey toward political and economic union. Trying to get these and other disparate elements to agree a common attitude toward social and employment issues, let alone the institutions, is impossible.
Noen of this of course will help Nick Clegg who, rather like David Cameron and grammar schools last summer, has found that political leadership requires an understanding of when and when not to be too rational.
Or, to put it another way, you don't have to be mad to be a political leader but it helps...