Row over campaign tactics sours Cabinet meeting

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister, declared that the Conservatives are still “the nasty party” after an unprecedented bust-up over their tactics in the referendum campaign during yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.

The Energy and Climate Secretary clashed with the Chancellor George Osborne after demanding that he and David Cameron disown No campaign leaflets attacking Nick Clegg over his broken promises such as the trebling of university tuition fees –a Tory demand.

Mr Huhne’s surprise intervention angered the Prime Minister and Chancellor. Mr Osborne told him bluntly: “This is the Cabinet, not some kind of sub-Jeremy Paxman interview."

The spectacular row threatens to undermine future relationships between Tory and Liberal Democrat ministers. The atmosphere at the end of the Cabinet session was described as “frosty.”

Mr Huhne told The Independent last night: “Theresa May [the Home Secretary] once said the Conservative Party was the nasty party. This episode suggests that it still has a way to go before full rehabilitation. It is regrettable that this is bound to have an impact on relationships, which is why these personal attacks on Nick are incredibly short-sighted. It undermines him for making the compromises sought by Cameron to put him in power and to make common cause in the national interest.”

As allies dismissed speculation that Mr Huhne would quit the Cabinet, he added: “I feel very strongly about the behaviour of the No campaign. It would be entirely unacceptable in any other walk of life to attack a close colleague in such a personal and nasty way.”

At the end of the Cabinet’s opening session, the Energy Secretary asked Mr Cameron to dissociate himself from No camp propaganda attacking Mr Clegg and to sack any Tory official responsible for it. The Prime Minister replied that he was responsible for the Conservative No campaign but not the wider cross-party No campaign.

Mr Huhne then turned his fire on Mr Osborne. He twice asked him whether he was had sanctioned the attacks on Mr Clegg. After Mr Osborne’s reply, Mr Huhne said people would draw their own conclusions from the Chancellor’s refusal twice to dissociate himself from personal attacks on the Deputy Prime Minister.

Lord (David) Owen, the crossbench peer who opposes the alternative vote (AV) because he wants proportional representation (PR), claimed Mr Clegg kept his party in the dark about Gordon Brown's offer a year ago of a referendum with three options –PR, the alternative vote (AV) and the current first-past-the-post system. He told a No campaign rally: “There has been a conspiracy of silence from Liberal Democrats and some Labour politicians.”

Lord Adonis, who led Labour’s post-election talks with the Liberal Democrats on constitutional reform, said:“Gordon and the negotiators made it clear we would be sympathetic to the idea of including the option of PR in a referendum on voting reform, along with keeping first past the post and AV. However, we made it clear that the Labour Party’s position was not to support PR and we would campaign against it at the referendum.”

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