Nick Clegg: ‘We have just 100 days to stop Ukip becoming a major force’

Lib Dem leader wants to to deny Ukip its “breakthrough moment” by mobilising pro-European voters

There are  just 100 days to stop the UK Independence Party becoming a permanent major force in British politics, Nick Clegg warns today.

Writing in The Independent, the Liberal Democrat leader reveals a high-risk strategy in which his party will go head-to-head with Ukip at the European Parliament elections in May. He will contrast the Liberal Democrats’ unashamedly pro-European stance as “the party of ‘in’” with Ukip’s  policy of leaving the EU.

His aim is to deny Ukip its “breakthrough moment” by mobilising pro-European voters. Nigel Farage’s party has been widely tipped to come top in the Euro polls, which are fought under proportional representation, with Labour forecast to come second and the Conservatives third.

The Deputy Prime Minister believes the Liberal Democrats have a “unique selling point” on Europe, arguing that many Conservatives want to pull out and that Labour is reluctant to attack Ukip for fear of alienating voters. He said: “The Conservatives cannot resist the temptation to follow suit and the Labour Party cannot pluck up the courage to speak up.”

The Liberal Democrats will target the estimated one in five people who regard themselves as pro-European.

Mr Clegg admits: “Nigel Farage’s brand of pub-friendly Euroscepticism is appealing.” But he has decided his party has nothing to lose by taking the fight to Ukip.

Privately, the Liberal Democrats fear they could lose 10 of their 12 MEPs in the May elections. There is even speculation that they could finish a humiliating fifth place behind the Greens.

A disastrous result could provoke calls by Mr Clegg’s internal critics for him to stand down so the party has a new figurehead at next year’s general election. But allies insist he will not quit and that it would be too late for the party to change leader only a year before the election.

In a speech on the economy on Monday night, Mr Clegg revealed that the Liberal Democrats would demand Labour speed up its plans to clear the deficit if they were in coalition with Ed Miliband’s party after the general election. The Deputy Prime Minister told business leaders at London’s Mansion House that his party remained “absolutely committed” to the Coalition’s target to balance the nation’s books by the 2017-18 financial year. “That is the right timescale,” he said.

The statement puts him at odds with some Liberal Democrat activists and Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, who has pledged to clear the annual deficit by 2020.

Mr Clegg called for further moves to clear the remaining £1.5 trillion of national debt to prevent future generations being saddled with an “unbearable burden”.

Aides suggested it could be reduced from 80 to 60 per cent of GDP and admitted that the process could take between 10 and 20 years.

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