Coalition partners put a brave face on their battered relationship


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Indy Politics

After a torrid few days, Nick Clegg began yesterday among friends. He arrived at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London's Knightsbridge at 7.45am and had time, appropriately, for croissants and coffee as he prepared to address the Business for New Europe group.

Like him, the organisation is for the European Union and against David Cameron's use of the veto at last week's Brussels summit.

It was the start of the Deputy Prime Minister's fightback on Europe as he tried to "pick up the pieces" on two fronts – ending both Britain's isolation in the EU and the bitter public split between Britain's two Coalition parties.

Also present were Liberal Democrat ministers Vince Cable, the Business Secretary; Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary; Danny Alexander, the Chief Treasury Secretary; and his predecessor, the backbencher David Laws. Tory ministers were conspicuous by their absence.

Despite that, Mr Clegg told the businessmen: "The whole Government is absolutely determined to re-engage with our European partners, to get back on the front foot and to make sure that our vital national economic self-interest in being at the heart of the single market is properly followed through the weeks and months ahead."

Mr Clegg squeezed in meetings with other leading business figures after returning to his office in Whitehall. Several expressed their dismay at Britain's apparent isolation. Mr Clegg encouraged them to make their fears known – both in public and privately to Tory ministers. Predictably, the Liberal Democrat leader was greeted with derision from Labour MPs when he entered the Commons chamber to take his seat for Prime Minister's Questions. He knew it would happen because of his highly unusual "no show" on Monday, when Mr Cameron made a Commons statement on the Brussels summit. Then Mr Clegg was visibly angry, ripping off his lapel microphone at the end of a TV interview explaining his absence. Yesterday he smiled through the taunts.

Fortunately for the PM and his deputy, Ed Miliband's inevitable attack on their split was deflected by a brilliant put-down by Mr Cameron: "It's not like we're brothers or anything."

Mr Clegg congratulated Mr Cameron on what he saw as a strong performance. The PM had rehearsed his knockout blow at two "prepping" sessions for PMQs yesterday morning.

Later, both he and Mr Clegg met senior ministers to discuss the Olympics. After a week of tension, ministers saw it as a welcome chance to get back to normal business. Europe was not on the agenda. Spin doctors from both Coalition parties agreed: "It's time to move on."

Then Mr Cameron returned to the Commons for an end-of-term address to Tory MPs and peers at the weekly meeting of the 1922 Committee.

"Headmaster's study again," he quipped to a line of journalists standing opposite him, jokingly branding them "the execution squad". If he had caved in at the Brussels summit, the execution squad might have been waiting for him inside. Instead, two hardline Eurosceptics, Bernard Jenkin and John Baron, congratulated him and he was given a hero's welcome.