Inside Westminster: Banging on about Europe used to be a problem for Clegg. These days it’s the Lib Dems’ number one selling point

Strange as it may sound, the Lib Dem leader is gambling by making the European Parliament elections in May about Europe

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“Cameron says jump, Clegg says ‘how high?’” That is how voters in a recent focus group conducted for the Conservative Party characterised the relationship between the Prime Minister and his deputy. Similarly, the Tory polling finds that most voters believe the Liberal Democrats – and especially Nick Clegg – sold their souls to get into government.

The finding that most cheered some Tory strategists is that many voters do not think it credible that the Lib Dems forced the Tories to implement a policy they opposed – the £10,000-a-year personal tax allowance which takes effect next month. In any case, most people don’t really think of David Cameron’s administration as a coalition. They regard it as “the Government”, and see its figureheads as Cameron and George Osborne rather than Clegg.

The polling helped to persuade the Chancellor to embark on a shameless act of political grand larceny. He is claiming ownership of the £10,000 personal allowance, and will probably trumpet a further rise for next year (which Clegg has already demanded) in his Budget on 19 March. Never mind that the policy was on the front cover of the Lib Dems’ manifesto in 2010, and their top priority in the negotiations on the Coalition Agreement. Forget the fact that Cameron told Clegg during the leaders’ TV debates in 2010: “We cannot afford it.”

As the Lib Dems hold their spring conference in York this weekend, their senior figures are seething about what they call “a naked attempt” to steal their flagship policy. They will use the event to shout from the rooftops that raising the tax allowance was their idea, and that they have had to fight hard for every increase in it since 2010. “We are going to take this policy back,” one Lib Dem aide said yesterday.

The Lib Dems’ own polling is not as gloomy for them as the Tories’ research. Among their target voters, including those who have deserted the party, there is a recognition that they pressed for the tax cut. But one Clegg adviser admitted: “We still have work to do to convince people. We are going to bang on about this until we are blue in the face.”

The tax battle highlights the perils of being the smallest party in a coalition government. When the Lib Dems joined the Coalition in 2010, their Liberal counterparts in other European countries warned them there was a risk they would get the blame for unpopular policies but not reap much benefit from the good news. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of the junior coalition partner doing badly at the following general election.

In recent months, the Lib Dems have turned up the volume when they “differentiate” from the Tories. Even “coalitionist” ministers like Danny Alexander at the Treasury and David Laws at Education have been pressed into action. Some rows with the Tories are choreographed but increasingly they are not. However, there is a limit to how far they can go without making the Government look shambolic, undermining the party’s need to show that “coalition works”.

The Tories are irritated by the attacks but believe their best strategy is to ignore them. “The Lib Dems can have their hissy-fits; we are the grown-ups getting on with governing,” one Tory minister said.

Similarly, Tories mocked the forthcoming TV and radio debates between Clegg and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, on whether Britain should be in or out of the EU. The Lib Dem leader is gambling by making the European Parliament elections in May about Europe. That may sound odd, but it breaks one of the rules of the political game: there are few votes in “banging on” about Europe. (The success of Ukip surely stems from the party combining Europe with the much more potent issue of immigration, and becoming the “none of the above” party now that the Lib Dems are “one of the above”.)

In the past, when the Europhile Clegg told his advisers he wanted to make a speech about Europe, they would try to talk him out of it. Not now. As the Tory polling shows, Clegg needs to get noticed. If taking to Farage helps, so be it. The Lib Dems are appealing to the quarter of the electorate who are pro-EU. Putting it crudely, 25 per cent is better than the party’s 10 per cent rating in the polls.

They won’t only “bang on” about Europe. Tax will provide a useful balance: as a pocket-book issue, it will have a better chance of resonating with Joe Public.

The Tories would love the Lib Dems to disappear: hence their talk of restricting next year’s TV election debates to Cameron and Miliband, a battle of the heavyweights without Clegg. That would be outrageous. Perhaps it is just a Tory ruse to stop the debates happening.

The bad news for the Tories is that Clegg is not going to disappear. Love them or hate them, the Lib Dems are still in the game.