A deep rift at the heart of Britain's government opened last night, with Nick Clegg publicly admitting his bitterness over David Cameron's unprecedented use of the veto to block a new EU treaty to deal with the financial crisis.
The deputy prime minister said that Britain standing alone outside the EU would be a “pygmy” whose views were “irrelevant” to the rest of the world.
His warning raises questions on how Mr Cameron can hold the Coalition together when he appears before the Commons today.
He also admitted that he was woken from his sleep at 4am to be told of the use of the veto.
Mr Clegg's first public reaction to the veto was to stress that the Cabinet was “united”.
But all pretence of unity dissolved yesterday, when he admitted he was “bitterly disappointed” by an outcome that he said could damage job prospects.
Asked whether the crisis could “break the Cabinet” the Liberal Democrat peer Michael Oakeshott replied: “It's a very tense situation. It could do (though) I hope not.”
Aides indicated that the deputy prime minister had decided to go public on the rift in the coalition after hearing what he regarded as the triumphal reaction of eurosceptic Tory MPs.
Mr Clegg said that the Prime Minister was trapped between French intransigence and anti-EU sentiment in his party.
He told Andrew Marr’s BBC
programme yesterday: “They think it's a triumph, but in my view they are spectacularly misguided. I hear this talk about the 'bulldog spirit'. There's nothing bulldog about Britain hovering somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, not standing tall in Europe, not taken seriously in Washington.”
Previously, aides had briefed that Mr Clegg had been awake and in touch during most of the night when David Cameron was negotiating in Brussels.
Yesterday he said the first he knew about what happened was when he was woken by a phone call in his Sheffield flat at 4am.
Labour accused Mr Cameron of not wanting to secure a deal because he preferred to appease the anti-EU right: “The eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party has essentially taken over, and this is not good for the country,” leader Ed Miliband claimed.
A break-up of the Coalition seems remote. Much depends on Mr Cameron. If he pushes to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels, it will be difficult for him to keep the Coalition. That is not on the cards. Both parties are already acknowledging their “differences”. Such are the mechanics of a coalition Government, in which the notion of collective Cabinet responsibility appears to have been forgotten.