Clegg distances himself from Cameron as he faces Commons over EU veto

Cameron cut a stressed and under-siege figure at the EU summit last week
Cameron cut a stressed and under-siege figure at the EU summit last week

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron was forced to justify his decision to veto the EU rescue initiative alone today, after Nick Clegg did not turn up to the PM's Commons statement.

The deputy prime minister's office said he did not want to provide a "distraction" by appearing, but his absence prompted frenzied speculation in Westminster about how badly Mr Cameron had alienated his pro-European Liberal Democrat coalition partners with his tough approach to talks in Europe.

In a TV appearance which gave the impression of disunity at the heart of government, Mr Clegg then appeared on Sky News to stress that "the prime minister and I do not agree on the outcome of the summit".

"When I was told of the outcome of the summit I immediately told the prime minister I could not welcome it," he said.

"What we need to do now is build bridges, re-engage and make sure the British voice is heard in the heart of Europe."

There were relatively few criticisms from Lib Dems during the Commons session, although Michael Horwood asked a searching question about attracting investment to the UK and Jo Swinson compared Mr Cameron's approach to negotiations unfavourably with the climate talks in Durban, saying "constructive approaches are a better strategy than rushing for the exit".

Mr Cameron received predictably robust support from his own party for vetoing plans proposed by France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel.

"I required safeguards and I make no apology for it," he told the Commons.

"The choice was a treaty without proper safeguards or no treaty. The result was no treaty.

"I do not believe there is a binary choice for Britain. It is possible to be a full committed and influential member of the EU but to stay out of arrangements where they do not represent our interests."

Ed Miliband won plaudits across the political spectrum for a strong performance in which he accused Mr Cameron of making "the biggest mistake of Britain in Europe for a generation".

The Labour leader added: "Few could have anticipated the diplomatic disaster of 26 going ahead and one country - Britain - being left behind.

"Far from protecting our interests he has left us without a voice.

"How can the prime minister convince anyone else it's a good outcome when he can't even convince his own deputy?"

Mr Miliband said that even Mr Cameron's attempts to stop the new European grouping from using EU institutions and buildings were likely to come to nothing as there is provision for their use in article 273 of the European treaty.

"A veto is supposed to stop something happening. It's not a veto if it goes ahead without you," Mr Miliband argued.

"That's called losing. That's called letting Britain down."

Mr Cameron responded by criticising Mr Miliband for not indicating in his response whether he would have vetoed the proposed treaty changes, had he been PM.

"If you can't decide, you can't lead," he said.

Other Labour backbenchers issued vitriolic attacks on the prime minister.

"Never before has so much been thrown away for so little," Michael Meacher said.

Labour firebrand Dennis Skinner said: "Isn't this the same prime minister who has been castigating working people for not staying at meetings for their pensions? As Del Boy would say: 'What a plonker'."

In the most public falling-out yet between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader hit the TV studios this weekend to argue that he would have handled European negotiations better because he did not have a eurosceptic wing to his party.

"If I'd been at the summit of course things would have been different because I'm not under the same constraints from my parliamentary party as David Cameron is," the deputy prime minister told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show.

"I'm bitterly disappointed, precisely because I think there's a real danger the UK will be isolated and marginalised in the EU."

Some observers assumed those comments signalled a green light for Liberal Democrat MPs to attack the prime minister when he delivered his statement, but very few broke ranks.

Their discipline came as senior Liberal Democrats moved to limit the damage to the coalition, with Simon Hughes, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable all giving interviews playing down the row.

Polls show strong support for Mr Cameron, with 57% of respondents to a Populus survey for the Times saying he was right to use the veto and only 14% against.

Even among those who voted Lib Dem at the last election, 49% of people believe Mr Cameron did the right thing.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.