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Coalition crisis deepens as Nick Clegg boycotts David Cameron's EU statement to Commons

By Andrew Grice

The split at the top of the Coalition deepened yesterday when Nick Clegg boycotted David Cameron's Commons statement on Europe and the two men clashed over Britain's next moves in its bitter dispute with the rest of the EU.

The Prime Minister and his deputy are at odds over whether the Government should move quickly to rebuild bridges with the 26 other European Union countries after Britain was left isolated at last week's Brussels summit.

In an astonishing gesture, Mr Clegg refused to take up his usual place at Mr Cameron's side when he explained to MPs why he had become the first British Prime Minister to veto an EU treaty. The Liberal Democrat leader, who was accused of cowardice by Conservative and Labour MPs, said he did not want to be a “distraction”. But his absence also underlined his very public disagreement with Mr Cameron on Europe.

Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers admit the Coalition faces the biggest crisis since it was formed last year. They say the atmosphere at the top of the Government is worse than when Mr Cameron authorised personal attacks on Mr Clegg to help defeat the Yes campaign in May's referendum on the voting system.

Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, hinted that the Coalition's future depended on a more positive stance on Europe. He told the House of Lords that Britain must now “make ourselves relevant to the argument and back in the game”.

Mr Clegg's disappearing act overshadowed Mr Cameron's Commons statement. Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, said the “cowardly and negative attacks” by Liberal Democrats after the summit were “cowardice only to be surpassed by the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister in the Chamber today”.

Another Tory, Philip Davies, attacked “the lickspittle euro fanatics on the Lib Dem benches”.

In a television interview, Mr Clegg insisted the Coalition “is here to stay” but admitted: “The PM and I clearly do not agree on the outcome of the summit last week. I made it very clear that I think isolation in Europe when we are one against 26 is potentially a bad thing for jobs, a bad thing for growth and a bad thing for the livelihoods of millions of people in this country. “

Mr Clegg wants the other 26 EU countries, who are going ahead with their own agreement to rescue the euro without the UK, to be able to use bodies such as the European Commission and Court of Justice. He said it would be “ludicrous” for Britain to deny them such access in sharp contrast to statements by Mr Cameron and the Chancellor, George Osborne.

Yesterday the Prime Minister said he had an “open mind” but a full retreat by him would provoke criticism by Tory Eurosceptics, who yesterday heaped praise on him in the Commons.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said the summit was a “diplomatic disaster”.

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