Clegg accuses Huhne of testing voters' patience

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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg has accused his Liberal Democrat leadership rival Chris Huhne of "squandering" a chance for the party to win over the voters by misrepresenting his policies.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Clegg warned that the public would turn its back on Britain's third party if its leadership election slips into a divisive battle between the two men. He accused his opponent of manufacturing a false divide to portray Mr Clegg as on the right.

A docile contest exploded into life on Sunday when the two contenders clashed on BBC television after the Huhne camp produced a dossier entitled "Calamity Clegg". Although Mr Huhne apologised for the headline, he stuck to the document's claim that his opponent "flip flops" on policy.

Mr Clegg hit back by warning that Mr Huhne's attempt to create "artificial" differences during the election to choose Sir Menzies Campbell's successor would play into the hands of Labour and the Tories and "test the patience" of the voters.

"This party has had a really difficult time in the past two years. We have had ructions, scandals and problems," he said. "We must not squander this opportunity. We have to talk to people, not ourselves. It is very difficult for the party to start reconnecting with voters if we indulge in lots of synthetic, semantic arguments manufactured for internal effect."

Insisting that "no one in their right mind" could describe his platform as right wing, he said he favoured a radical redistribution of wealth to bring spending on the poorest 10-15 per cent of children immediately up to that spent on pupils at private schools, and that he would risk prosecution by refusing to register for an identity card. He had been drawn into politics by inequalities in society and Margaret Thatcher's claim that "there is no such thing as society".

"In using the old left-right language, who is benefiting? It is our opponents. If we do the spadework of defining ourselves as left and right, we will only have ourselves to blame if the electorate does not realise we are a seeking to create a liberal alternative and if we fail to break the stifling grip of two- party left-right politics that has fossilised British politics for too long."

Mr Clegg promised that, if elected leader, he would "break the mould" of the two-party system after two general elections. As a minimum, he said, that would mean doubling his party's 63 MPs by then.

At 40, he is 13 years younger than his rival and promised he would be a leader with "passion, energy and commitment over a long period of time." He added: "I am as ambitious to lead for the long term as I am for the short term."

Mr Clegg rejected claims in the Huhne campaign document that he backed the idea of a "voucher" system for schools. He wanted to give more money to schools that take on the poorest pupils but would not hand vouchers to parents to spend at the school of their choice.

He also denied his opponent's suggestion that he would not give top priority to demanding proportional representation in a hung parliament. To appeal to voters, he said, the Liberal Democrats had to set out policies "across the waterfront" rather than focus on coalition negotiations that might never happen. "I want to reinvent politics, not be seen as an annexe to Labour or the Tories."

Mr Clegg acknowledged differences between the two runners over the Trident nuclear missile system, which Mr Huhne would scrap, but criticised him for not making that case during the party's detailed policy review.

He also denied that he had not taken a strong line against the Iraq war, saying he had missed the protest march in London against it for "personal reasons".

Despite the dispute, he insisted that the two men could work closely, whoever wins the contest. Ballot papers go out tomorrow and the result will be announced on 17 December. "I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Chris's skills and, whatever happens, I would also seek to deploy those skills very fully in my shadow cabinet," he said.