By JR on Monday, December 19, 2011
Nick Clegg last night opened up a damaging new rift with David Cameron by ridiculing the Prime Minister’s support for marriage as a throwback to the Fifties. In a direct challenge to Mr Cameron’s views, the Deputy Prime Minister describes tax breaks for married couples as outdated nonsense and takes a swipe at the image of the traditional nuclear family.
‘We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the Fifties model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother, and try to preserve it in aspic,’ the Liberal Democrat leader will say in a speech tomorrow.
The comments amount to a direct assault on the beliefs of the Prime Minister and many leading Tories. Barely six months ago, Mr Cameron issued an impassioned statement of his belief in marriage by saying: ‘I am pro-commitment, I back marriage and I think it’s a wonderfully precious institution.’
Mr Clegg’s outspoken remarks – which will be seen as a desperate attempt to shore up the party’s crumbling grassroots support – cap the Coalition’s rockiest period since it was formed 18 months ago.
Relations between the Government allies have fallen to their lowest ebb after last week’s bitter public row over Europe when the fervently pro-European Mr Clegg disowned Mr Cameron’s decision to veto a new EU treaty. He said he was bitterly disappointed by it.
Yesterday, Mr Clegg kept up the attack by accusing Eurosceptics of stoking up ‘xenophobia and chauvinism’. In his comments on the family, to be made in a speech to Left-wing think-tank Demos, Mr Clegg will stress his implacable opposition to Mr Cameron’s plans to give tax breaks to married couples. ‘We can all agree that strong relationships between parents are important but not agree that the State should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form,’ Mr Clegg is expected to say.
Last night, Tory MPs condemned the Lib Dem leader for his attack on marriage. Priti Patel, MP for Witham, Essex, claimed that Mr Clegg’s ‘liberal ideal of partnerships’ had ‘led to the moral breakdown in society’.
Ms Patel, 39, who is married with a three-year-old son, added: ‘We should be supporting the traditional concept of marriage and family. I would urge the Prime Minister to call Mr Clegg’s bluff and press on with introducing tax help for married couples.’
Is the honeymoon over? Mr Clegg's latest remarks cap a tough few weeks of public disputes within the Coalition
Mr Clegg – married with three children, but in charge of a party whose members traditionally take a more relaxed view of the institution – will compare the Lib Dem notion of an ‘open society’ with Mr Cameron’s much-trumpeted Big Society of greater community involvement and devolving power.
His provocative comments come as Lib Dem MPs are still recovering from Mr Clegg’s abrupt U-turn last weekend over Mr Cameron’s veto, which the Deputy PM initially supported before suddenly changing his mind. He warned Britain would look like a ‘pygmy’ if it left the EU.
Sources say the volte-face came about after party grandees, including Lord Ashdown and Baroness Williams, urged him to show some ‘steel’ in his dealings with the Prime Minister.
One senior Lib Dem MP said: ‘We were all on the same page, happy with Nick’s initially conciliatory response, but then there was this barrage of behind-the-scenes Europhilia from people such as Shirley Williams and Paddy Ashdown. They got to him. ‘Most MPs think it was entirely stupid to have one position and then stage a U-turn.’
Last night, Mr Clegg’s aides denied he had been persuaded by Lord Ashdown to harden his views on the EU negotiations, saying: ‘Nick made his own mind up.’
Aides to Mr Cameron declined to comment on the Deputy Prime Minister’s latest attack.