Nick Clegg criticised David Cameron’s plans for a Europe referendum and to reward marriage in the tax system yesterday as he distanced the Liberal Democrats from their coalition partners.
The Deputy Prime Minister hit back at Mr Cameron’s call for the Lib Dems to “get off the fence” on Europe and portrayed the Conservatives as backward-looking on marriage. He was speaking at the first of his monthly news conferences, and made clear he will use them to differentiate his party from the Conservatives in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
After Mr Cameron promised Tory MPs he would honour his long-standing pledge to bring in transferable tax allowances for married couples, Mr Clegg suggested the money would be better spent on a tax break to help working families with their child care costs. He said: “This desire of the Conservative Party to hand-pick couples through the tax system who conform to their image of how you should conduct your life, I don't think it's fair.“
Europe is back on the agenda because the Conservative high command is supporting a backbench bill to guarantee an in/out referendum in 2017, which be debated by the Commons on Friday.
Mr Clegg, whose MPs are expected to abstain, argued that the Tories had repeatedly changed their position while the Lib Dems had remained consistent. ”They may increasingly be becoming the party of 'out',“ he said. ”We are unambiguously - and will remain - the party of 'in'”. He said his party would back an in/out referendum when a new EU treaty emerged but added: “They [the Tories] now want to pluck a slightly arbitrary date in the diary out of thin air to have a referendum on a very ill-defined process of so-called renegotiation.“
The Lib Dem leader said: “I have never understood the recently-altered Conservative position, which is that they are in effect threatening to leave the EU if they don't get an unspecified shopping list of repatriated powers.”
He also turned his fire on the UK Independence Party, saying: ”I think they appeal - and appeal strongly - to people who want a better yesterday, and I want a better tomorrow. That's the difference.“
Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, told the pro-EU Business for New Europe group that the proposed 2017 referendum was “a serious distraction.” He said: “We are recovering from the worst economic crisis for the best part of a century. The last thing we need now is massive levels of uncertainty in the business community.”
James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, who has introduced the referendum Bill, said he is confident it will receive a second reading on Friday because his Conservative colleagues backed it “to a man.” He added: “The Labour Party en masse isn't going to turn up, and the Liberal Democrats will take the same route. In the longer run, we need to build up a stronger base of support.”