Nick Clegg refuses to veto in-out EU referendum

Liberal Democrat leader leaves door open to new coalition with Conservatives but claims he will block planned welfare cuts

Nick Clegg has removed one of the barriers to a second coalition deal with the Conservatives by refusing to veto an in-out referendum on European Union membership, and instead insisted that the Tories backtrack on their plans for £12bn of welfare cuts.

The Liberal Democrat leader said he had not held any private talks with David Cameron about a further coalition, but his party’s election manifesto was carefully constructed to keep alive the chance of a further coalition with the Tories without closing the door on Labour.

Clegg drew cheers at the manifesto launch in south London on Wednesday by saying his party “will add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one”, adding that the document was “an insurance policy against either main party lurching off to the extremes”.

Noticeably, however, the Lib Dem leader echoed the Tories in saying Labour had “a sort of secret plan” to let the Scottish National party pull the strings after the election.

Clegg said: “A party legitimately cannot govern a whole nation – the UK – if they want to break that nation apart. I don’t think having [the SNP] pulling the strings in the government of the country when they want to pull the country apart is acceptable to many people.” The SNP was creating “a very ugly politics in Scotland”, he added.

The remarks suggest that even an informal understanding between Labour and the SNP could represent a barrier to Clegg striking a post-election deal with Ed Miliband’s party. The Labour leader has himself ruled out a coalition with the SNP.

In a visit to Scotland on Thursday, Cameron will warn against what he will describe as a coalition of chaos with the SNP acting as “the chain to Labour’s wrecking ball, running right through our economic recovery – and it will be you who pays the price”.

He will also say that the SNP have been through the lobbies with Miliband “91.5% of the time during this parliament, including 27 out of 28 votes on welfare and 62 out of 65 votes on the economy”.

Earlier in the day, with the debate moving to the subject of post-election coalition talks, Lord O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary who coordinated the 2010 discussions, said those negotiations were likely to be a “piece of cake” compared with the multiparty talks that are likely to start after the general election next month. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, whose party is expected only to win a handful of seats, said he would work with Cameron to block a Labour-SNP coalition.

With the polls remaining tight, current forecasts have Labour and the Conservatives on roughly similar numbers of seats, both well short of an overall majority of 326. The Guardian’s election projection has Labour at 271 and the Tories at 270. But with the Lib Dems projected to win only 29 seats, a coalition involving Clegg’s party looks difficult without involving the SNP, which is forecast to win 54.

Clegg’s claim that Labour planned to rely on the SNP was supplemented by a frontal assault on Labour’s credibility on the economy.

David Laws, the influential education spokesman and author of the Lib Dem manifesto, said Labour “are a party that people can easily associate with compassion for the poor and underdogs but they have never been a party that has persuaded people they are serious about wealth creation and the economy and managing public finances in a credible way … Labour are people who care a lot but aren’t always the people you’d want to entrust with your money.”

Although Clegg is eager to discuss the idea of a coalition to keep his party relevant in the campaign, he avoided the phrase “red lines” at his launch. Nevertheless, he said the five pledges on the front page of the party’s manifesto are “our top priorities”. Clegg added: “These are the things we will fight tooth and nail for in the next parliament. And make no mistake, this is a programme for government, not opposition.”

The five top priorities are:

• A £12,500 personal tax allowance.

• A balanced budget on the current account by 2017-18 which would be done “fairly”.

• £8bn extra spending for the NHS including equal status for mental health.

• A real-terms increase in education department spending in line with the increase in pupils by 2020.

• Five green laws including decarbonisation of electricity.

The tax, health policy and some of the macro-economic policy are in line with stated Conservative policy, but the green laws and extra spending on education take Clegg’s party closer to Labour.

Senior members of the party federal executive said there was a potential deal in which Clegg conditionally conceded an EU referendum to Cameron, but demanded in exchange that George Osborne backtrack on plans to cut welfare bills by £12bn over the next two years. The Liberal Democrats have said they will accept cuts of £3bn.

Discussing the Osborne welfare cuts, Laws said : “It is impossible to see how we would want to sign up to that. We have identified some welfare savings but we are not prepared to go down the Tory route.”

Asked whether the Lib Dems would seek to block an EU referendum on Cameron’s timetable, Laws said: “Voters are entitled to know what are the things that are really really important to them that they they would expect to vote for that party to deliver.”

Clegg said there was “nothing inconsistent between being pro-European and democratic”, but he has added as a coalition partner he would be involved in any renegotiations. “If any British government of whatever composition were involved in a new formulation to a new treaty that has to be put to a referendum then of course the whole of government has to be involved in that. As to what the Tories want to renegotiate, on what timeframe and in pursuit of any objective, search me.”

Clegg suggested that even though no party would win an overall Commons majority, he expected one party to clearly win more seats so reducing the Liberal Democrats’ options. “That party then has the legitimacy to seek to form a government. It may fail.”

He said he thought any coalition talks would be more prolonged than in 2010, “because there is a greater expectation that a coalition will happen and because the next coalition, unlike in 2010, will not be born in the midst of an economic firestorm. Whether it takes five days or seven days, what is most important is who ends up in that coalition. Any coalition that does not have the Liberal Democrats will be more unstable.”

• This article was amended on 16 April 2015 to correct a quote from Nick Clegg.


Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt

The GuardianTramp

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