Stayaway Clegg says Britain must start building bridges in Europe


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The Independent Online

The split at the top of the Coalition deepened yesterday when Nick Clegg boycotted David Cameron's Commons statement on Europe and the two men clashed over Britain's next moves in its bitter dispute with the rest of the EU.

The Prime Minister and his deputy are at odds over whether the Government should quickly rebuild bridges with the 26 other European Union countries after Britain was left isolated at last week's Brussels summit.

In an astonishing gesture, Mr Clegg refused to take up his usual place at Mr Cameron's side when he explained to MPs why he had become the first British Prime Minister to veto an EU treaty. The Liberal Democrat leader, who was accused of cowardice by Conservative and Labour MPs, said he did not want to be a "distraction". But his absence also underlined his very public disagreement with Mr Cameron.

Both Conservative and Lib Dem ministers admit the Coalition faces the biggest crisis since its formation.

Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader and a close ally of Mr Clegg, hinted that the Coalition's future depended on a more positive stance on Europe. He told the House of Lords that Britain must "make ourselves relevant to the argument and back in the game". He told ministers: "Do you realise how much depends for this country and I might say for this Government on our success in doing so?"

Mr Clegg's disappearing act overshadowed Mr Cameron's Commons statement. Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, said the "cowardly and negative attacks" by Lib Dems after the summit were "cowardice only to be surpassed by the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister", while Philip Davies attacked "the lickspittle euro fanatics on the Lib Dem benches".

In a television interview, Mr Clegg insisted the Coalition "is here to stay" but admitted: "The PM and I clearly do not agree on the outcome of the summit last week. I made it very clear that I think isolation in Europe, when we are one against 26, is potentially a bad thing for jobs, for growth and for the livelihoods of millions of people in this country. What we need to do now is build bridges, re-engage and make sure that the British voice is heard loud and clear in the heart of Europe."