Lord McNally, Lib Dem leader in the Lords, is opposed to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Lib Dem peers are going to vote against holding a public vote. This could be crucial: no party has a majority in the Upper House, which makes it quite possible for the government to be defeated. However, if the Lib Dem peers vote with the government, instead of abstaining as our MPs did in the Commons, Labour should comfortably avoid a referendum.
The fiasco over the Commons vote has cast a shadow over Nick Clegg's leadership, after an otherwise very promising start, and this latest development makes it far worse. We are now quite literally facing in two directions at once. Having an unpopular position isn't great, but appearing to have no position at all is far, far more damaging.
No doubt Lord McNally will come in for serious flak for this. The Eurosceptics will blame him for denying the British people a say on the treaty, and within the party, he'll be criticised for making us look inconsistent. But in truth, McNally comes out of this rather well - certainly better than Nick Clegg. Because, whether or not you agree with Tom Mcnally on this issue (and I don't), he has at least come to a clear viewpoint, and defended it in public. Clegg has deliberately abstained, and made himself look hesitant, petulant, and worst of all, weak.
My own view is this: our initial call for an in-or-out referendum was entirely right. People are kidding themselves if they think there would be a detailed, clause-by-clause public debate on the Lisbon Treaty. Much better to put the entire question of our EU membership to the people. But as soon as it became obvious that an in-or-out referendum wouldn't be forthcoming, we should have backed a referendum on the treaty instead, albeit as a second-best option. It would have been the closest we could have come to fulfilling our manifesto commitment, and would still have allowed us to debate many of the same issues as we would have discussed during an in-or-out ballot.
Alternatively, we could have taken the Tom McNally line of opposing the Lisbon referendum, and whilst I'd have disagreed with that position myself, we would be in much better shape now if we'd decided on it at the time and stuck with it consistently all the way through - because it is, at the very least, an actual position.
This continuing saga will reflect badly on the Lib Dems - but it says far more about Nick Clegg than about Tom McNally. McNally's decision may have led to a serious inconsistency in our approach, but only because he has deviated from the previous position of sitting on our hands and hoping the problem would go away. And the one person to blame for that is Clegg.