Clegg lashes out against Tory 'lies' over AV campaign

In an exclusive interview, the Deputy Prime Minister reveals deep divisions in the coalition

Matt Chorley,Jane Merrick
Sunday 24 April 2011 00:00 BST

Nick Clegg's anger with David Cameron spills into the open today in a devastating interview revealing the real and deep tensions at the heart of the coalition.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday, the Liberal Democrat leader tears into the Prime Minister's "lies, misinformation and deceit" during campaigning for the alternative vote referendum. He launches an attempt to rescue his political reputation by repositioning himself once again as the "interloper" of British politics, boasting about how the Lib Dems' influence in government has left "the Tory right frothing at the mouth".

Yesterday a new split emerged over Lib Dem plans to curb internships being handed out through "who you know" networks, after Mr Cameron admitted giving a place to an Oxfordshire neighbour.

Mr Clegg is angry at claims made by Mr Cameron and others about the impact of a Yes vote in the referendum. In February the Prime Minister told The Sun: "The Government would have to spend money explaining the system to voters and buying voting machines to make sense of it all." The Tory chairman, Baroness Warsi, said supporters of AV were "backing a system that rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups".

The Lib Dem leader says: "The Yes campaign has had to fight a campaign against a headwind of lies, misinformation and deceit, and that's been tough on them. When people lie about counting machines that won't exist, about the rise of extremism under AV that won't happen, about costs that won't arise, we should call that."

Less than a year after the jovial backslapping as the pair arrived at No 10, Mr Clegg paints a decidedly icy picture of his relationship with Mr Cameron, declaring "we are not mates" but engaged solely in an "unsentimental ... transaction".

The intervention will be seen as an attempt to revive his and his party's fortunes ahead of a likely bloodbath in local elections and a majority for the No campaign on 5 May. But aides insist the frustration with coalition partners is genuine.

Mr Clegg speaks out after weeks of personal attacks by opponents of AV. He is furious that Mr Cameron reneged on a deal to keep a low profile in the AV campaign. Crucially, the turning point was the Prime Minister's decision to attack Mr Clegg in all but name while sharing a No platform with the former Labour home secretary Lord Reid last Monday.

Mr Clegg said: "This nasty No campaign, I hope, will prove to be the death rattle of a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are. That's why they are lashing out." Asked if he was referring to the PM, Mr Clegg responded: "Look, I include all those, and of course it includes the Conservative Party, who like this nice little racket: they get a job for life and they waft into power and they don't even need to bother try to get a majority of people on side."

He also condemns the "unholy marriage" between big private donors to the Conservative Party funding the "very nastiest reactionary politics from the dinosaurs on the Labour left. It is a coming together of the most reactionary forces in British politics".

Mr Clegg says he won't resign in the event of a No vote on 5 May. Yet this will leave him under pressure from within his own party to deliver meaningful reform. Last night it emerged Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, had written to George Osborne to complain at claims that introducing AV would cost the taxpayer £250 million. "Robust debate is normal in British politics. Persistent resort to falsehoods is not," the letter said, accoding to The Sunday Times.

Lib Dems insist the enmity between the two parties is genuine. Lord Oakeshott raged at the way Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne were sanctioning "vicious" attacks by the No campaign against Mr Clegg. He said: "David Cameron only needs to lift a manicured eyebrow to stop the despicable attacks on his own Deputy Prime Minister. He is the smiling assassin, stabbing Nick in the back."

Mr Cameron yesterday defended giving internships to children of friends and workmates, undermining a flagship Lib Dem policy – personally driven by Mr Clegg – to improve social mobility. The Prime Minister said he was "very relaxed" about awarding work experience positions to personal acquaintances and had offered one himself to a local schoolgirl.

But Mr Clegg told The IoS: "It's not my job to stop David Cameron taking on whoever he likes in his private office. It is my job to make sure government departments, the Lib Dems, businesses and others give all youngsters a fair chance. It just can't be right that plum internships are decided by who you know, not what you know. This is not about stopping people's most natural instinct in wanting to help their children; this is about making sure people get a fairer crack of the whip. What's wrong with that?"

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