Nick Clegg accused the Conservative Party of "endless navel-gazing" over Europe last night as David Cameron tried to avert a constitutional crisis over this week's Commons vote on an EU referendum.
Ministers, who cannot technically oppose the Queen's Speech, will be told to abstain in the vote, expected while Mr Cameron is out of the country on Tuesday, which protests at the lack of legislation on a referendum. Backbench Tory MPs are to be given a free vote after Downing Street moved to avert a major rebellion, fuelled by the Ukip surge in the local elections.
The Deputy Prime Minister, in his weekly email to Liberal Democrat members, said the Conservatives' obsession with Europe must not distract the coalition from its priorities. "Our job is to anchor the Government in the centre ground, stopping others from lurching this way and that, and making sure the Government delivers our core objectives: a stronger economy in a fairer society.
"That's why major liberal reforms and investment – from childcare to pensions – will remain the core business of this Government. Not endless navel-gazing about when and how a referendum may take place in years to come in circumstances we can't predict."
A Liberal Democrat source added that the appointment of a climate-change sceptic, the Tory MP Peter Lilley, as a foreign affairs adviser to No 10 "shows you need Lib Dems in Government if you want to ensure the issue of climate change is taken seriously".
Mr Cameron has promised an EU referendum after the next election, but a No 10 source said the idea of bringing it forward to before the 2015 election – closer to rebels' demands of 2014, to avert a Tory collapse in the European elections – was "not a bad one", just difficult in a coalition with Lib Dems.
The majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are expected to oppose the EU referendum amendment. Ed Miliband, in a speech yesterday, said Mr Cameron was running scared on Europe.