|Leader Vince Cable was absent from last night's votes.|
The missing three Lib Dem MPs were deputy leader Jo Swinson, leader Vince Cable and former leader Tim Farron. Many who are pro-EU have expressed disappointment that some Lib Dems were not present for the vote - after all, if we are not the party of the EU then who is? I have seen some Lib Dems suggesting their membership hangs in the balance, as they feel let down - especially by the leader.
So, where were Jo, Vince and Tim?
The answer to the first should be obvious: Jo is on parental leave following the birth of her baby. That's a pretty good reason not to have been present for the vote. I am also sure that if there was a system that allowed for proxy voting in such circumstances then she would have voted with the other nine Lib Dem MPs. The criticisms directed towards Jo on social media are grossly unfair, to put it very mildly. I wouldn't have expected her to be present; neither should anyone else realistically have expected it.
As for Vince, we don't know where he was. Until we do I think it's fair to ask the question, but hold back on outright criticism. I am sure all will soon become apparent - once we know his reasons for being absent for last night's key votes, we might be in a better position to determine whether or not he "let us down". I accept it looks bad for a leader absenting himself - very bad - but let's not jump to conclusions. There are multiple possible explanations: I have not yet been able to ascertain whether pairing arrangements were in place for last night's vote, for example.
Which brings us to Tim. Unfortunately we have a better idea of Tim's whereabouts last night. While I'm awaiting confirmation he did actually attend the event, Tim was due to speak at a Christian event entitled "Illiberal Truths", at which he was scheduled to speak on "faith and shared values" and "the death of liberalism".
Further detailed information on the event on Insight's website has mysteriously disappeared overnight, but having read it yesterday I was under the impression that Tim would be discussing "what happens when my truth is not yours".
I am not surprised by Tim's attendance at this - not in the slightest. I note some fellow Lib Dems feel "angry" and "shocked" at Tim's sense of priorities. I am neither - I might be irritated by Tim but I have long since resigned myself to the kind of person Tim is. He no longer makes me angry, which is perhaps a regrettable reality. However, I was disappointed and surprised that he accepted this engagement during parliamentary time in the final week of a sitting anyone knew would witness crucial Brexit-related votes, rather than - for example - in the summer recess.
Should Tim have been representing his constituents in an important vote rather than speaking at a Christian event in Dorset? I know it can be difficult to excuse oneself from pre-agreed engagements, but on something so important it does seem odd that he didn't - not least because he will be aware that his reasons for not being present will raise the usual questions about his priorities. His actions, however unintentionally, have once again damaged the party's image and have given the likes of the London Economic the opportunity to run with the headline "May bailed out by 'party of the Remainers'". Unfortunately, mud sticks.
It should be added that while I'm annoyed at Tim and Vince not being around last night, and while I'm irked that our credentials as the pro-EU party of UK politics have been undermined, the official opposition had an opportunity to defeat the government last night and failed. The usual suspects (Hoey, Field, and Stringer) voted to support the government, but more tellingly 14 other Labour MPs abstained. Arithmetically at least, that proved far more crucial than three of our own being absent.
Update (17.7.18): A Lib Dem spokesperson has told The Guardian that "Vince had an important meeting off the parliamentary estate that had been approved by the whips and nobody thought these amendments would ever be so close." That makes some sense, but the inescapable reality is that they were close and when leaders and former leaders absent themselves on votes like these it inevitably affects our credibility as a pro-EU party. When one of those MPs is missing to trot out his now well-known views on supposed illiberal attitudes to faith at a Christian event, the best thing that can be said as that it doesn't look good.
Chief whip Alistair Carmichael has also issued this statement, accepting responsibility for the situation: "Brexit is the most important issue in a generation. And as Liberal Democrats we have taken on the responsibility of stopping it. We’re the only Party united in this aim.
"Last night I messed up. The government squeaked home by just 3 votes in a key amendment. It should have been 1.
"I was not expecting a close vote - up until 8pm, Labour were planning to abstain which would have meant the vote would be lost by hundreds. In fact several Labour MPs voted with the govenment- which is why they won. By the time it became apparent that the vote was going to be close - it was too late to get two of our MPs back in time to vote.
"I’m taking responsibility and redoubling my efforts to stop Brexit."
It seems therefore that the whip's office messed up. We can ill afford further such complacency or miscalculations, and hopefully lessons will have been learned.