James Forsyth

Clegg ducks Cameron’s conciliatory speech

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The text of David Cameron's statement on the European Summit was clearly designed as balm for the coalition's wounds. He devoted a large chunk of it to defending Britain's membership of the European Union in a clear effort to reassure the Lib Dems about the future direction of European policy. But this effort was rather undermined by the absence of the deputy Prime Minister. This was, predictably,  the story of the session. In response to repeated Labour questions about where Clegg was, Cameron replied 'I'm not responsible for his whereabouts. I'm sure he is working very hard.'

Nick Clegg has now given a TV interview in which he has escalated the coalition divide over Europe. He told the networks, 'The Prime Minister and I clearly do not agree on the outcome of the summit last week'. The doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility now seems to be more honoured in the breach.

The danger for the coalition is that the Europe issue is going to come back time and time again between now and 2015. If Cameron and Clegg continue to disagree on it, then things are going to get very interesting indeed.

Personally, I'm not sure if Clegg is wise to advertise his opposition to what Cameron has done. It makes him look rather impotent. Several Tories close to Cameron have claimed to me today that Clegg both agreed the negotiating strategy and never asked to be called before the veto was deployed which makes his current complaints rather surprising. He would be on far firmer ground if he had insisted that the veto only be used once he had been consulted.

Cameron, though, now has a far clearer persona on the European issue than before. One MP linked in to Number 10 said to me earlier, 'the Cameron brand is that he's the man who stands up for Britain. He now has definition.'