UK Politics

Ashdown urges Cameron to condemn Clegg AV attacks

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Media captionLord Ashdown claims the No campaign has made personal attacks on Nick Clegg

Lord Ashdown has stepped up the war of words over AV, calling on David Cameron to distance himself from attacks being made by No supporters on Nick Clegg.

The former Lib Dem leader said the No campaign had become "deeply and appallingly personal" and "no British prime minister" should be linked to it.

But No 10 said Mr Cameron did not run the No to AV campaign and "did not condone personal attacks".

No to AV said Lord Ashdown's "hysterical" words showed desperation.

On Monday, Mr Cameron teamed up with Labour heavyweight and former minister John - now Lord - Reid to attack the alternative vote system.

The prime minister stressed he was against personal attacks as part of the campaign - and said his own Conservative No to AV literature did not contain any.

But Lord Reid told the event any change in the voting system should be in the public interest and not the "narrow self interest" of "losing parties" which hope "to turn losers into winners" - seen as a coded reference to Mr Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues.

The No campaign is a cross-party group which is separate from the Conservative Party, although it shares some of the same financial backers.

It has singled out the deputy PM, claiming the alternative vote would "save 'President Clegg'.

'Disassociate himself'

Lord Ashdown told the BBC he was "very, very angry" at the "Conservative Party money and the dinosaurs of Labour who are attacking the man holding the coalition together".

"This has become a deeply and appallingly personal campaign. It's centred on one personality and that is Nick Clegg," he said.

Image caption The No to AV campaign has produced a poster singling out Nick Clegg

"I am asking the prime minister, will he disassociate himself from a campaign of personal attack of the sort that no British prime minister should ever, ever be involved in?

"If he wants to take a high profile lead in this campaign, let him do so on the basis it is conducted with honesty and decency."

He said Mr Cameron must step in because continuing to back the No campaign's current tactics would inevitably damage "personal relations" within the government.

"The result is not going to affect the coalition, but the way that this is being fought, the way that our leader, Nick Clegg, is being singled out by a campaign funded by the Conservative Party is, I think, very damaging," he said.

"It must be making Liberal Democrats fighting furious and I am certainly one of those."

But Downing Street hit back at Lord Ashdown's comments, saying Mr Cameron was focused on making the argument against AV.

'Hysterical outburst'

A spokesman said: "As the PM made clear yesterday the Conservative Party is running its own NO to AV Campaign.

"This is focused on highlighting how unfair and unpopular the AV system is and why people should vote No.

"It is a system that is obscure, unfair and expensive and could mean that people who come third in elections end up winning. It is not attacking Nick Clegg."

And Siobhain McDonagh, patron of Labour No to AV, said: "This hysterical outburst from Paddy Ashdown shows how the Yes campaign is getting increasingly desperate in their attacks on the No campaign.

"In politics when you start accusing people of lying, instead of trying to explain the issue at hand, you have lost the argument."

The peer had previously criticised George Osborne after the chancellor accused the main backer of the pro-AV camp, the Electoral Reform Society, of standing to benefit financially from a change in the voting system.

Lord Ashdown's angry intervention came after his party's Energy Secretary Chris Huhne also launched an attack on the tactics of the No campaign - singling out the Conservatives specifically for criticism.

He told the BBC's Newsnight: "I am frankly shocked that coalition partners can stoop to a level of campaign that we have not seen in this country before."

'Scare and smears'

Asked whether the row over AV was harming the coalition, he said: "I think it is damaging. There is no doubt about it.

"I can never remember a campaign that has stooped as low as the No campaign in dredging up stuff that they know is downright lies.

"I think this is the politics of the gutter."

Mr Huhne also complained that he had not received a reply to a letter he sent to Conservative party chairman Baroness Warsi earlier this month demanding an end to what he called "scare and smears" being employed by No campaigners.

He had earlier accused Baroness Warsi, a cabinet colleague, of being part of an "increasingly Goebbels-like campaign" after she warned that switching to AV would give a boost to extremist parties.

Mr Clegg has come under fire from both sides of the AV debate, with Labour leader Ed Miliband refusing to share a platform with him, despite both men backing a Yes vote in the 5 May referendum.

'Politics not personalities'

Mr Miliband has said he believes Mr Clegg's involvement will damage the Yes campaign.

On Monday, he appeared alongside Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable at a Yes event, and told reporters: "I will share a platform with anybody I think can help us win a referendum.

"The No campaign want to make Nick Clegg the poster boy for this campaign, and what I'm saying is, 'Don't make this a referendum on David Cameron or Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband - make it a referendum about what kind of politics we want in this country.'"

Meanwhile, an ICM poll for the Guardian suggests support for a change in the voting system has fallen among the public.

A survey of 1,033 people on 15 to 17 April found a 16-point lead for the No campaign, compared with a two-point lead for the Yes camp in an equivalent poll carried out in February.

It came as the Conservatives prepared to launch an online anti-AV video featuring a race at a school sports day in which the child coming in third is handed the trophy.

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