Cablegate: Uk Liberal Democrats Recovering From Parliamentary
PP RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHLO #0732/01 0720927
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 120927Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY LONDON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7753
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 LONDON 000732
EO 12958 DECL: 03/10/2018
TAGS PGOV, PREL, PINR, EU, UK
SUBJECT: UK LIBERAL DEMOCRATS RECOVERING FROM PARLIAMENTARY
REF: 07 LONDON 4655
Classified By: Political Minister Counselor Maura Connelly, reasons 1.4 b, d
1. (C/NF) Summary. The UK’s Liberal Democrat Party limped into its spring conference in Liverpool March 7-9 following a disastrous performance in the House of Commons March 5 during the debate over a possible referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a performance which plunged Nick Clegg into the first crisis of his three month-old leadership. Clegg managed to rally the party with a strong speech at the conference, in which he called for a shake-up of the entire British political system. He also addressed head-on the possibility of a future coalition with either the Labour or Conservative parties in the event of a hung parliament, declaring the Lib Dems would never be an “annex” to any other party, but leaving the door open for a coalition if Lib Dem concerns were taken into account. Despite the Lisbon Treaty fiasco, Clegg’s position as party leader is in no jeopardy: as the third leader in two years, Lib Dems at all levels of the party tell us frankly that they have to make sure he succeeds. End summary.
A Very Bad Day: The Lib Dems and The EU Reform Treaty
2. (SBU) March 5 marked the worst day for the Lib Dems since one infamous week in January 2006, when the party became the laughing stock of Britain after sex scandals involving two of the four candidates to succeed leader Charles Kennedy emerged one right after the other. This time around, the party imploded in the House of Commons over a Conservative Party motion to hold a nationwide referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Lib Dems’ convoluted official position on the referendum was part of the problem. As Clegg sought to explain it to the public, the real issue for his intensely pro-Europe rank-and-file was not the Lisbon Treaty itself, but confirming UK membership in the EU once and for all. The Lib Dem official position therefore was to propose an alternate “in or out” referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU, and abstain on the competing Conservative motion to hold a referendum on just the Treaty itself.
3. (C/NF) This position left both the pundits and the public scratching their heads: why would the UK’s most pro-Europe party, whose new leader actually worked for the EU from 1994 to 1999, abstain on a vote on the Treaty? The answer, senior Lib Dems have confessed to us, is that the party leadership believes a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would fail. Despite Labour’s parliamentary majority, if there had been enough Labour defections, a Lib Dem vote for the Tory referendum could have led to its passage. In the end, the “least worst scenario,” according to Shadow International Development Minister Michael Moore, was to adopt the awkward position of abstention. This unspoken subtext was derided by pundits, one of whom called it “too clever by half.” Another summed up the Lib Dem position as “sinuous, supple, and so difficult to understand it’s not worth getting to grips with.”
Nick Clegg and His “Cojones”
4. (SBU) In any case, Clegg failed to carry it off. As expected, the Lib Dem motion to hold a separate “in or out” referendum on UK membership in the EU failed in the Commons on February 26, but the staged Lib Dem walk-out afterwards, accompanied by jeering and good-bye waves from the rest of the House, did not come across as principled, as the party had hoped, but rather as if they were in the throes of a “hissy fit,” in the words of one BBC commentator. It didn’t help that, on the same day, the Guardian published a quote Clegg made prior to the 2005 election, in which he said, “The real reason, of course, why the government does not want to hold a referendum is the fear that it may lose... Nothing will do more damage to the pro-European movement than giving room to the suspicion that we have something to hide, that we do not have the ‘cojones’ to carry out our argument to the people.”
5. (SBU) The use of the word “cojones” - not wide-spread in Britain as it is in the U.S. - came back to bite Clegg in the, er, nether regions at the March 5 session of Prime Minister’s Questions. Rising to address the Commons, Clegg nervously shook a crease out of his trousers, unwittingly bringing the cojones remark back to the fore and causing the House of Commons to erupt in jeers and laughter, drowning out Clegg’s question and forcing the Speaker of the House to call for order. Tory Foreign Affairs Spokesman William Hague raised the subject yet again in the debate on the Lisbon Treaty referendum later that day. “Any explanation of why
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the Liberal Democrat leadership’s protests in the debates have become ever more shrill,” Hague said, “is that, at some point in recent months, they have become separated from their cojones. Those unfortunate objects are now to be found impaled on a distant fence.” More jeers and laughter followed.
6. (C/NF) Difficult as it is to imagine, the situation got worse for Clegg after that. In the ensuing vote on the Conservative referendum motion, 13 out of the 63 Lib Dem MPs, including three members of Clegg’s cabinet, broke from the official party line to vote in favor of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, on the grounds that abstention was not in keeping with the party’s 2005 election manifesto. The dissenting cabinet members - Environment Spokesman Tim Farron, Scotland and Northern Ireland Spokesman Alistair Carmichael, and Justice Spokesman David Heath - subsequently resigned their front bench positions. According to Michael Moore, the Lib Dem rebels all hold their seats by narrow margins and believe that abstention might hurt their chances of reelection. Moore took on the Scotland and Northern Ireland portfolio when Carmichael resigned, but indicated to us that the three front benchers will eventually return to their positions after a decent interval. On the idea of allowing a free vote on the referendum, as some parliament watchers had suggested, Moore said even more Lib Dems MPs would have gone against the party line if Clegg hadn’t attempted to impose discipline.
7. (SBU) The press ate Clegg alive. “No Cojones Clegg” ran the headline from the Independent. “Calamity Clegg’s Spectacular Blunder,” ran the Daily Mail. “Since their angry ‘mince-out’, most MPs have decided the Lib Dems are a joke,” the Guardian proclaimed. Clegg “castrated himself in full view of the House of Commons,” declared columnist Matt Norton in the Independent.
Speech Rallies The Troops
8. (SBU) Clegg went into the spring conference shaken by the events of the previous two days, but managed to deliver a strong key note speech that went some way toward repairing the damage. Speaking without notes, he called for a shake-up of the entire British political system, including a constitutional convention to examine all aspects of how Britain is governed, firing MPs who break parliamentary ethics rules, and limiting political donations. He also addressed head on the idea of a possible coalition with either the Labour or Conservative parties in the event of a hung parliament, vowing, “I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party.” His wording, however, implied that the Lib Dems would consider a coalition if their own concerns were taken into account. The BBC called the speech “an impassioned plea for change,” while the Guardian said the speech demonstrates that Clegg “has the resilience to hit back.”
9. (C/NF) Conference organizers told us beforehand that the Lisbon Treaty would be kept deliberately off the agenda in anticipation that the issue would blow up - as it did in the Commons. The blow-up, however, produced worry and head-scratching among the party rank-and-file at the Conference rather than attacks on Clegg. As one conference attendee put it to us, “I know something bad happened, but I’m not sure what. I don’t really understand what the whole thing is about.”
“We’ve Got To Make This One Stick”
10. (C/NF) The March 5 disaster notwithstanding, Lib Dem party members appear happy with Clegg’s performance so far. Some noted to us, however, that he has spent most of his time since becoming leader in December 2007 working the political crowd in Westminster, and has not reached out to the party rank and file. All of our MP and party member contacts tell us they recognize that Clegg, who only entered Parliament in 2005, faces a steep learning curve.
11. (C/NF) XXXXXXXXXXXX says that so far Clegg has been decisive and thoughtful. In contrast, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, former leader Sir Menzies “Ming” Campbell was more like a chairman of the board, a style not in keeping with the way the unruly party actually operates. For example, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, Campbell would give directives while not understanding that the organizational structure to impose his edicts did not exist.
12. (C/NF) Shadow Housing Minister Lembit Opik has a different view of Clegg. In Opik’s view, Clegg has
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surrounded himself with insiders who carry out his wishes without consulting others, thus allowing Clegg to avoid direct confrontation, a trait some party members have pointed out to us as one of his failings (reftel). According to Opik, Clegg’s thin skin also showed itself during the lead-up to the March 5 fiasco, when Clegg derided one of Opik’s suggestions in front of the Lib Dem cabinet, then adopted it without telling Opik. When Opik confronted Clegg about it, Opik says he was immediately whisked away by a Clegg crony who begged him not to make a scene in public. Opik told us he plans to run for Lib Dem President (a leadership role, but subordinate to Clegg) at the end of the year to give the Lib Dems an alternate voice inside the party.
13. (C/NF) No matter how Clegg ultimately performs, however, XXXXXXXXXXXX told us frankly that, as the third Lib Dem leader in two years, the party has no choice but to make sure he succeeds. “We’ve got to make this one stick,” he said. Moore and Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman Jeremy Brown affirmed to us that there are no alternative leadership candidates to Clegg.
14. (C/NF) One commentator compared the Lib Dem performance on the Lisbon Treaty referendum to watching a “car crash in slow motion.” One could apply that metaphor to the entire last three years, beginning in December 2005 when Charles Kennedy was forced to stand down as leader for alcoholism. There is no question that the Lib Dems were badly hurt by their handling of the Lisbon Treaty referendum, although Clegg’s performance at conference appears to have undone some of the damage. And they continue to be worth watching - and not just because the horror of it makes great copy. Despite its ups and downs, the party continues to poll between 15 and 20 percent of the electorate. With Labour at about 33 percent and the Tories at about 40 percent, Nick Clegg could yet be a “kingmaker” in the event of a hung parliament at the next election.
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