Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has accused the Conservatives of engaging in an “unholy bidding war” with the UK Independence Party over who can sound most anti-European, which could end in Britain leaving the European Union.
The Liberal Democrat leader insisted he will not tone down his party’s pro-European message, following a poll suggesting his MEPs are set to be wiped out in this year’s elections to the European Parliament, while Conservatives slump to third place behind Labour and the UK Independence Party.
Mr Clegg said it would be “economic suicide” for Britain to quit the EU, and that Tories and Ukip were indulging in “silly political games” which could put millions of jobs at risk.
The YouGov survey for the Sun put Labour on 32 per cent and Ukip on 26 per cent, with the Tories trailing on 23 per cent and Liberal Democrats a distant fourth on nine per cent.
If the findings were repeated on May 22 with a uniform swing, they would see Conservative representation at the European Parliament slashed by 11 to 15 MEPs, while Labour would have 28 (up 15), Ukip 23 (up 10), and the Lib Dems would lose all of their 11 MEPs, according to The Sun’s calculations.
Speaking on his Call Clegg show on LBC 97.3 radio, Mr Clegg acknowledged that the Lib Dems were facing a “real uphill struggle” in the European election.
But he added: “Given those kind of predictions, you might have thought that what I’m going to conclude is, ‘Let’s not talk about Europe too much because making the case for Britain’s continued role in Europe is unpopular’. I’m actually going to do exactly the reverse.
“I really genuinely feel that we are getting to the point in the debate where you’ve got this unholy bidding war between the Conservative Party and Ukip as to who can sound more breathless in their condemnation of all things European and, before you know it, this country will find itself outside of the European Union.
“I think this will mean we will be less relevant and powerful around the world, we would have less influence around the world, but crucially you would have fewer people in work, because being in Europe at the end of the day means being in work. I am not going to stand idly by while people play ever more silly political games and jeopardise millions of jobs in this country.
“Whatever the pollsters say, we are going to remain the party of ‘In’, because I think being in Europe means being in work.”
Voting intentions for the Euro-poll were very different from those for the 2015 general election in the same poll, which put Labour on 39 per cent, Conservatives 33 per cent, Ukip 12 per cent and the Lib Dems 10 per cent.
Senior Tory Liam Fox said it was in the national interest to have a debate about Europe, rather than a Conservative response to the electoral threat from Ukip.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I don’t think we should be defined politically by anybody else; we need to have this debate because the country needs to have the debate.”
Dr Fox said voters would see the European elections as a “referendum on a referendum” and “pretty much anything could happen”.
He added: “There’s only one party in this country that can guarantee the people of this country will get a referendum on the European Union and that is the Conservative Party.
“A vote for anybody else is likely to mean no voice for the British people in their own destiny. That would be a tragedy.”