Nick Clegg will launch a thinly veiled attack on Ukip leader Nigel Farage today, warning that the “bile” and “anger” of nationalistic extremism is on the march across Europe.
The deputy prime minister will tell the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York that “an ungenerous, backwards looking politics has emerged in Britain”. The beer-loving Mr Farage has led Ukip out of obscurity and could even win May's European elections.
Mr Clegg said: “The politics of blame has found an acceptable face: it wears a big smile and looks like someone you could have a pint with down the pub”.
The two party leaders face each other in a television debate over EU membership next month, with the Lib Dems using the conference to define the party's pro-European stance against Ukip's determination to leave the bloc. Mr Clegg claims he is “drawing a line in the sand” before nationalist parties gain ground politically in the UK, as they have in France, Slovakia, Hungary and Greece.
This is one of the first big steps Mr Clegg has taken to ensure that the Lib Dems have a distinct identity ahead of next year's general election after nearly four bruising years of Conservative coalition government.
The deputy prime minister has faced criticism from within his own party membership for the concessions the Lib Dems had to make in order to gain power, most infamously ditching a pledge to scrap university tuition fees.
Stressing that the UK must remain part of the EU to protect jobs, tackle climate change, and foster cross border co-operation in policing is fraught with electoral danger. A leading party campaigner even warned Mr Clegg at an event yesterday that talking about the EU does not work “on the doorstep”.
According to some forecasts, the Lib Dems could lose all 12 of their MEPs in the European poll, but Mr Clegg vowed: “Forget the lazy assumption that, in the court of public opinion, the Eurosceptics will automatically win want jobs... Because there are plenty of people out there who don't want anger. They don't want bile. They want jobs.”
Mr Clegg will not name-check any of the other parties in the speech, as he looks to focus on making the Liberal Democrats distinctive from Labour and the Conservatives.
In a question and answer session with conference delegates yesterday, Mr Clegg showed his frustration that the Conservatives have largely gained the credit for the Coalition's most successful policies, while the Lib Dems have been battered in the opinion polls.
The Lib Dems have successfully pushed through a rise of the point that people start paying income tax to £10,000 from this year. The party has been pushing the Conservatives to agree to a further £500 increase - effectively a £1bn tax cut - while First secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said yesterday that another hike to £12,500 would be the party's price for forming another Coalition in 2015.
“We should be proud of the fact that we're helping people on low and middle incomes,” said Mr Clegg. “This is something that is finally being associated with us. People don't believe the Conservatives when they say that they wanted the allowance [raised] all along.”
At a fringe event, Mr Alexander added that the increase to £10,000 and more “strengthens the Labour market” and makes a “huge difference to millions and millions of people”. He warned, though, that the party needed to “work very hard to make sure that the Liberal Democrats get a fair share of the credit for the economic recovery”.
Mr Clegg also accused Labour of “arrogance” yesterday, in particular attacking front-bench for an “assumption that basically Government will fall into their laps”.
The Conservatives were accused of “not standing up for business”, after immigration minister James Brokenshire appeared to criticise employers for taking on foreign labour.
He also assured party members that he still wants to be Prime Minister, despite all the talk of potentially again being Coalition as the smaller party after the 2015 election.