Clegg says he has no regrets about stand on EU treaty

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An unrepentant Nick Clegg said he had "no regrets" over the bruising rebellion on Europe which saw one in five Liberal Democrat MPs defy his leadership. And he insisted that he would repeat the aggressive campaigning stance which saw his MPs walk out of the Commons in protest that their calls for a referendum on Britain's future in the European Union were not debated.

He attempted to brush aside criticism of his decision to order his MPs to abstain on Conservative demands for a national vote on the Lisbon treaty, arguing that the stance would leave his party stronger in the long run.

Three members of Mr Clegg's frontbench team quit on Wednesday to join 12 more junior colleagues to back a referendum on the treaty, in defiance of Mr Clegg's orders.

Opening the party's spring conference in Liverpool – his first since becoming the Liberal Democrat leader three months ago – Mr Clegg dismissed the rebellion as a passing squall. "Europe is not an issue of individual conscience, it's quite critical to our party's identity," he said. "Of course there are differences. It's not an act of leadership to throw your arms up in the air and say let a thousand flowers bloom.

"I tried to maximise the amount of unity. Is this the perfect outcome? Clearly it's not, but it is the best test available."

Defending the party's Commons walkout over Europe, he added: "I can't regret it. You are going to get a lot more of that.

"When you have a political system which is as sclerotic as it is and tied up between the two parties, it is exactly right for a political party such as the Lib Dems, which is about political reform, from time to time to say, 'Hang on this is an absolute joke'."

Mr Clegg said he had been planning the Liberal Democrats' tactics on Europe for months, but insisted his party was well placed to make the case for Europe in the longer term.

Allies said they would turn their fire on the Conservatives, who they said had "no clear policy" after the Lisbon treaty is ratified. They made it clear that the Liberal Democrat call for an in-or-out referendum on Europe would remain an "enduring" party policy.

Mr Clegg said: "This is a squall which won't in any way affect the optimism I think the party has got in bucket loads at the moment. You will see that confidence this weekend.

"What you will see is a party which is in a more buoyant and optimistic mood than it has been in for a very long time – looking forward to the next test in May in the local elections and, crucially in my view, very much leading the charge once again in the core domestic areas of public policy.

"What you will see in Liverpool is the adoption of a radical and sweeping set of policies on health ... from the decentralisation of health services to directly-elected local health boards through to a sweeping agenda of empowerment for individual patients."

Mr Clegg faces a fresh test of his authority today when delegates debate plans to drop the party's commitment to free personal care for the elderly, replacing it with a "care guarantee" which would split the cost between pensioners and the state but guarantee some payments towards care bills.

Plans also include creating directly elected local health boards, which could face opposition from delegates anxious to transfer the power over health services to local authorities.