I defy anyone to watch last night's Newsnight interview with Nick Clegg and tell me they think the LibDem position on an EU Referendum is anything other than a fiasco. Watch it for yourself HERE. It's about 15 minutes in.
First of all, whichever of his media advisers advised him to do this interview should be fired immediately. His position is untenable and this was amply demonstrated in the interview. Any self respecting spin doctor should have known that. Clegg came across as tetchy, nervous and ill-briefed.
The fact that he couldn't actually come out with a justification for ordering his MPs to abstain says it all. It also seems quite clear that he is going to be the first party leader in history to sack frontbenchers for keeping a promise and defying an instruction to abdicate any responsibility whatsoever.
LibDem supporting Norfolk Blogger agrees. He says...
Nick Clegg has just been on Newsnight trying to defend the indefensible, and mightily stupid he has made himself look, and the Liberal Democrats. The point was made to him that a week ago the Lib Dems walked out of parliament because they were not allowed to vote on an issue, but now they are intending to enforce a three line whip to tell our MP's not to vote ? It seems daft in the extreme. But worse than that, Nick Clegg kept making the point that our MP's would not support calls for a referendum because it was not the preferred referendum we wanted. rather like a starving man refusing a sandwich because "I prefer wholemeal bread", the Lib Dem stance is just plain daft. Perhaps the most interesting point though was the lack of a sincere response from Nick Clegg on the question put to him by Jeremy Paxman, had he asked for pre-prepared resignation letters from MP's prepared to vote for the referendum ? Nick's response of "how could I, the vote has not taken place yet", was met with another repetition of the question by Jeremy Paxman. It was clear Paxman wanted Nick Clegg to be given a chance to change his mind on this question or dig a bigger hole for himself. Clearly someone has tipped of the BBC that resignation letters have been asked for.
Sadly, the whole piece on Newsnight made the Lib Dems look daft, out of touch and irrelevant. Very sad indeed.
Not a happy bunny, our Nich, and who can blame him. It's Nick Clegg's first big test and he's flunked it in a manner LibDem opponents can only have dreamed of.
Tory Euro MEP Dan Hannan reckons Nick Clegg should stop digging...
If he thought there was no need for a referendum, Paxo asked, why hadn’t he instructed his MPs to vote against one? Well, said Cleggie, the thing was that he was for a referendum, just not for this referendum, and the best way to express the subtleties of that position was not to vote at all.
Then came a deliciously revealing slip when he said that he wasn’t going to take lessons from Labour which had, after all, “reneged on its commitment to a referendum”. Labour, of course, is in exactly the same position as the Lib Dems: it claims, incredibly, that there is no need for a referendum because the Lisbon Treaty is different from the European Constitution. So here was Cleggie inadvertently admitting that his party, too, had reneged.
By the end I was feeling sorry for him. Cleggie is, as I have observed before, a fundamentally decent human being. Yet he was being forced to assume positions that would sprain the muscles of a circus contortionist.
Many LibDem MPs are tearing their collective hair out over this. I know, because three of them have told me. And what's more, they are looking at their new leader and asking themselves: is he really up to it?