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 move quickly to 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 on Europe.
Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers admit the Coalition faces the biggest crisis since it was formed last year. They say the atmosphere at the top of the Government is worse than when Mr Cameron authorised personal attacks on Mr Clegg to help defeat the Yes campaign in May's referendum on changing the voting system. After that, the two parties drew a line under their row but must now find a way through a minefield on Europe that threatens to destroy the Coalition.
Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat 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 now "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 Liberal Democrats after the summit were "cowardice only to be surpassed by the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister in the Chamber today". Another Tory, 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, a bad thing for growth and a bad thing for the livelihoods of millions of people in this country. I think 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."
Mr Clegg wants the other 26 EU countries, who are going ahead with their own agreement to rescue the euro without the UK, to be able to use bodies such as the European Commission and Court of Justice. He said it would be "ludicrous" for Britain to deny them such access – in sharp contrast to statements by Mr Cameron and the Chancellor, George Osborne. Yesterday the Prime Minister said he had an "open mind" but a full retreat by him would provoke criticism by Tory Eurosceptics, who yesterday heaped praise on him in the Commons for vetoing the proposed treaty.
Talks are under way in Brussels about how the "treaty outside the treaty" to be signed by up to 26 countries will work. One option is for Britain to attend their monthly meetings as an observer without voting rights.
Mr Clegg persuaded Mr Cameron to redraft his Commons statement to include more positive language about Europe. The Prime Minister, who rebuffed Tory demands for a referendum on Europe, told MPs: "Our membership of the EU is vital to our national interest. We are a trading nation and we need the single market for trade, investment and jobs."
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said the summit was a "diplomatic disaster". After he dodged questions about whether Labour would have signed the proposed EU treaty, his aides said Mr Miliband would have stayed at the negotiating table instead of walking out.
Are you sitting uncomfortably? Lib Dems in the Commons
1. Vince Cable
The most senior Liberal Democrat to show his face in the Commons yesterday sat three places from David Cameron, alongside Ken Clarke, the most pro-European Cabinet minister. The bench was packed tight and Mr Cable sat with his shoulders hunched, hands on one knee, and did not visibly react to the noise around except occasionally to raise his eyes with a pained look.
2. Chris Huhne
The Energy Secretary was alongside Mr Cable, trying to be impassive too, but could not quite manage to sit still for 90 minutes. He appeared to nod in agreement when Mr Cameron stressed the importance of EU membership, smiled at a reference to Croatia becoming the 28th EU member, and later gazed at the ceiling in what seemed exasperated boredom.
3. Danny Alexander
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury was further along the bench. He kept his eyes lowered and sat still, occasionally subjecting his fingernails to close examination, and generally doing quite a good job of not giving away any hint of what he was thinking.
4. David Heath
With Nick Clegg absent, the Liberal Democrat closest to Mr Cameron yesterday – physically though not necessarily politically – was the little known David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, sat two seats from the Prime Minister on his right hand side. Never an expressive character, he sat with folded arms and face impassive.