NICK Clegg will today promise to mount the most passionate defence of Britain’s membership of the European Union for generations and accuse the other major parties of being “missing in action” on the issue.
The Liberal Democrat leader will look to shrug off polls suggesting he lost his latest head-to-head with UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, describing the television debates as the just the start of efforts to convince the public leaving the EU would spell economic disaster.
His speech to Welsh Lib Dems marks the next step in a strategy designed to try and win back some of the voters who backed the party at the last General Election but were disillusioned by its decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.
Starting with May’s European elections but with a firm eye on next year’s General Election, Mr Clegg hopes to persuade pro-Europeans that the Liberal Democrats are their only choice.
In his speech today, the Deputy Prime Minister will describe the Lib Dems as Britain’s “one truly internationalist party”.
He will say: “Where are the supposedly pro-European Labour party? Or the supposedly moderate Conservative leadership?
“The country is finally having it out about the single biggest issue facing our future – and where are they?
“Absent. Hiding. Missing in action. Paralysed by their own internal divisions. Too scared to speak up for the national interest because it’ll cause them too great a political headache.
“It’s party-before-country from leaders who sort of half say they’re in, but who don’t have the guts to actually come out.”
The Sheffield Hallam MP will reject the suggestion that challenging Mr Farage to debates, only to lose according to opinion polls, represented an error of judgement.
“Are we going to win that argument in 120 minutes? No, sadly not: the sceptics have been peddling their myths and assertions free from real challenge for years.
“And the isolationists have entrenched their views with skill – presenting themselves as the forces of freedom; annexing the language of patriotism; pro-Europeans should be in no doubt about the outters’ appeal.
“But we didn’t pick this fight because it’s easy, Liberal Democrats, we picked it because it matters.”
He will argue the debates have helped establish the Lib Dems’ as having “the courage of our convictions.”
“At least we are willing to stand up and be heard, even when our views are less popular but we believe they are right,” he will say.
“The drama of the last few weeks is just the beginning. The Farage debates were just the start: a curtain-raiser to a campaign that will be the most passionate defence of British interests in Europe for generations.”
Mr Clegg will promise to take the debate to “town halls, radio phone ins, getting out on the door-step – reaching out in whatever way I can” and call on Lib Dem activists to do the same.
Polls in the immediate aftermath of Mr Clegg’s latest television debate with his Ukip counterpart suggested around two thirds of those watching considered Mr Farage the winner.
A poll following the previous week’s clash but the split at 57 per cent to 36 per cent in Mr Farage’s favour.
Lib Dems nevertheless believe the debates have given Mr Clegg the chance to energise its base and renew its appeal to voters who have walked away from the party since 2010.