It is one thing to back the wrong horse but quite another to back a non-existent one.
That, though, is what Nick Clegg has done in the race for the presidency of the European Commission.
Along the way, he and his aides have stitched up a delegation and made the party look ridiculous among its European partners.
The saga began when former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and Finnish commissioner Olli Rehn put themselves forward to be the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) candidate for the presidency and in effect leader of its European election campaign.
A meeting to choose the candidate was fixed for Brussels on 1 February and nominations opened for Liberal Democrats who wished to attend. Since no expenses are paid, such delegations tend to consist of those willing to pay their way and, if there are more people than places, an opaque process decides who votes.
But then Verhofstadt and Rehn did a deal. The former would contest the presidency while the latter would be nominated for another senior post.
Few would have noticed this deal in the UK had Clegg not immediately blown a gasket. The party issued an extraordinary statement: “This isn’t a deal Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats have signed up to, and we won’t be supporting it.
“We will continue to back Olli Rehn, and we regard him as being at the top of the liberal ticket across Europe, certainly in the UK. Nick Clegg will not be campaigning with Guy Verhofstadt and does not support at all his views of a federal Europe.”
While Clegg wants the Liberal Democrats to be the ‘party of in’ for Europe, he clearly does not want to be too far in and considers Verhofstadt a dangerous federalist. His statement put the Liberal Democrats in the absurd position of supporting a candidate as ‘top of the liberal ticket’ who was no longer standing, and of refusing to campaign in the UK with the candidate who was.
At least one person who had been told he would be on the Brussels delegation was abruptly and without explanation told he was off it – he surmises because he could not be counted on as a 100% Clegg loyalist on the matter. Nor could the Liberal Democrat MEPs, most of whom thought Clegg had taken leave of his senses.
Things became heated. The combative North West MEP Chris Davies told colleagues: “So the leader of our party intends to back a Liberal candidate for President of the European Commission who is in fact not a candidate for the job. And this despite the fact that the majority of his MEPs will support the official candidate. This is madness.”
Eastern region MEP Andrew Duff then wrote to the hand-picked loyalists with which the Brussels delegation had been packed to say the deal had been attacked on the grounds that “Verhofstadt is a dangerous federalist who will undermine the party’s main thrust in this election that we are merely the ‘party of in’.”
Duff continued: “Verhofstadt is by far and away the superior campaigner and the more experienced politician. His liberalism is beyond doubt. He is certainly able to modify the federal message to suit the different national and media contexts with which we have to deal as EU politicians without sacrificing his fundamental belief that only a deeper unity and stronger democratic governance at the EU level is necessary.”
Baroness Falkner then waded in, saying the international affairs team had taken a decision on the deal. This is not the elected international relations committee but a semi-formal grouping of assorted parliamentarians and representatives from various bodies.
Her message contained the mysterious observation that Martin Horwood, chair of the European Elections Manifesto Group, was there and “he has access to significant polling leading up to May, and is cognisant of our voter’s views on the EU”.
She presumably meant “our voters’ views” – things can’t have got that bad, surely?
Falkner added: “On Mr Verhofstadt himself: He is not helped by his regular interviews on the Today Programme where he airs his views about the United Kingdom government in colourful terms – a government which has Liberal Democrat Ministers. He has a long tail of speaking against the UK, and now cannot expect to be embraced by people in the UK or considered in high regard as representing the EU institutions.”
A furious Duff responded: “As you know, because we have known each other for many years, I was not born yesterday. I object to the International Affairs Team of the Westminster parliamentary party seeking to bypass the statutory bodies of the party in the matter of mandating the party delegation to the ALDE Congress.”
He also asked what Verhofstadt had said to give offence and said he was unable to find the large number of European liberals who Falkner imagined would oppose the deal between the two candidates.
ALDE duly voted by 245 votes to 44 to accept the deal between Verhofstadt and Rehn, with 20 abstentions, leaving the former to stand for president, the latter for another role and Clegg looking isolated.