David Cameron: I’ve no apology for standing up for Britain
PRIME Minister David Cameron insisted today he would "make no apology for standing up for Britain" by deploying the UK's veto to block a European Union treaty to bail out the euro last week.
But Mr Cameron was accused of making a "catastrophic mistake" by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who urged him to re-enter negotiations with the other 26 EU states to try to get a better deal for Britain.
The clash came in the final session of Prime Minister's Questions before Christmas, at which Mr Cameron was flanked on the Government frontbench by his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg.
Labour MPs mocked Mr Clegg for exposing coalition rifts over Europe by staying away from the chamber on Monday for the Prime Minister's statement on the Brussels summit.
Mr Miliband, who welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister back to his seat, said that Mr Cameron had promised the coalition Government would operate in a "collegiate" way, and asked: "What's gone wrong?"
But Mr Cameron retorted: "No one in this House is going to be surprised that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats don't always agree about Europe...
"I make no apology for standing up for Britain."
Mr Miliband told Mr Cameron that negotiations on the implementation of last week's inter-governmental agreement on a new fiscal compact for the eurozone would continue until March and it was not too late for the UK to rejoin discussions.
"In the cold light of day, with other countries spending the weeks and months ahead trying to see if they can get a better deal for themselves, isn't the sensible thing to do to re-enter the negotiations and try to get a better deal for Britain?" asked the Labour leader.
Mr Miliband offered his sympathy to Mr Clegg, who was woken in the early hours of last Friday to be told that Mr Cameron had used the veto to block EU treaty changes designed to impose new fiscal disciplines on eurozone states.
"I think our sympathy is with the Deputy Prime Minister," said the Labour leader. "His partner goes on a business trip, he is left waiting by the phone and he hears nothing until a rambling phone call at 4am confessing to a terrible mistake."
But Mr Cameron said Mr Miliband had failed to make clear whether he would have signed the proposed treaty, taunting him: "This leader of the Labour Party makes weakness and indecision into an art form."
Mr Cameron sought to turn Mr Miliband's accusations of a rift back on the Labour leader by highlighting his own differences with brother David.
Responding to the Labour leader's taunts about his row with Mr Clegg, the Prime Minister said: "He shouldn't believe everything he reads in the papers. It's not that bad - it's not like we're brothers or anything."
The clash came shortly after Mr Clegg met a group of pro-European business leaders who are concerned over the use of the veto and over Mr Cameron's threat to block the use of EU institutions to support the new compact.
The Deputy Prime Minister told the Business for New Europe (BNE) group the Government is "absolutely determined" to ensure that Britain remains at the heart of the European single market.
He acknowledged "differences of view" between the two coalition parties, which were dramatically exposed last night when his Lib Dem MPs abstained en masse rather than back a motion congratulating Mr Cameron for protecting British interests in Brussels.
Mr Clegg told the business leaders: "As the dust settles on the summit that took place last week, I speak here on behalf of the whole coalition Government, notwithstanding the differences of view between the parties within the Government.
"The whole Government is absolutely determined to re-engage with our European partners, to get back on the front foot and to make sure that our vital national economic self-interest in being at the heart of the single market is properly followed through the weeks and months ahead."
He told the BNE Advisory Council members, including Tory peer and former European Commissioner Lord Brittan, Centrica chairman Sir Roger Carr and BAA chief executive Colin Matthews: "You know as well as I do that your businesses and millions of people's jobs in this country depend on our place at the heart of the single market."
BNE chairman Roland Rudd said: "Business clearly wants a deepening and widening of the single market and that is what our message is in terms of wanting to see greater reforms. We are not defending the status quo, we are trying to see a changed and reformed Europe."
Asked if Mr Cameron was wrong to use the veto, Mr Rudd said: "I think people are concerned about the position we are in but they are encouraged at what they have heard recently."
Mr Clegg said there was "a considerable amount of uncertainty" about how the fiscal compact would work in practice.
Following yesterday's Cabinet meeting, there was speculation that Mr Cameron may be prepared to offer an olive branch to Lib Dem colleagues by softening his objections to the EU institutions, such as the Commission and European Court of Justice, being used to support the compact.
Business for New Europe has voiced concern that blocking the use of the institutions would make a collapse in the single currency more likely.
Mr Clegg said he wanted to ensure that "our calm, reasoned and engaged voice is heard positively within the EU institutions in the period to come".
With three million British jobs dependent on the single market, he said Government and business should work together to ensure that "those countries that invest very heavily in the UK from Asia, from Latin America and elsewhere are absolutely in no doubt that Britain is and will always remain a gateway for trade and for the exchange of services and goods into the European single market".
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said that Mr Clegg's comments showed that "the eurosceptic veneer applied to the coalition Government by David Cameron in Brussels last week is as thin as rice paper".
Mr Farage added: "Cameron, though playing to the gallery, has got us precisely nowhere when it comes to defending Britain's interests.
"Instead, he has heightened expectation that Britain is going to be free from Brussels interference. But while he wants to maintain the coalition he will do nothing to make the boast a reality.
"Cameron has cheered the vast majority of the British people by his posturing in Brussels. Their anger will be all the greater when they realise they have been taken for fools."