UK Politics

Clegg urges end to AV referendum 'mudslinging'

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Media captionStop AV 'mudslinging' urges Clegg

Nick Clegg has called for an end to the "mudslinging" in the debate on the AV referendum and for both sides to treat the public "like adults".

Campaigning ahead of English council elections and the 5 May referendum, the Lib Dem leader told the BBC that voters were turned off by "personal vitriol".

Senior Lib Dems have urged David Cameron to disassociate himself from attacks on Mr Clegg by the No campaign.

Mr Clegg also said he was standing up to the PM when he disagreed with him.

The deputy prime minister was asked by the BBC's Political Editor Nick Robinson, who is interviewing the leaders of the three main parties on the campaign trail, whether he should publicly pick more fights with the prime minister on issues where they differ.

'Tribal'

He replied: "I think, at election time, it is inevitable isn't it that people want to get more tribal, they want to duff up the other side.

"It is a balance you need to strike in a coalition government because clearly we are different parties, different leaders, different values. Always have, always will be but you also need to work together in the national interest to thrash things out.

"So quite a lot of the differences and, indeed arguments, you have are necessarily arguments you have behind closed doors."

Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable openly criticised a recent speech by David Cameron on immigration and senior figures such as Chris Huhne and Lord Ashdown have criticised the Conservatives' tactics during the AV referendum campaign, where the coalition partners are on different sides of the argument.

In contrast, Mr Clegg has faced claims he is not asserting his independence enough in government.

The deputy prime minister said it was inevitable that the parties would "start accentuating" their differences during an election campaign.

But he rejected suggestions the public "don't know" where he disagreed with Mr Cameron, stressing the government's approach would be different if it was not for Lib Dem involvement in the coalition.

"You just have to look at the things I say, week in week out, where we clearly differ.

"If you look at things the Lib Dems have brought to this government. It would not have happened without Lib Dems that we have now given a great tax break to 23 million basic rate taxpayers, that pensioners would not have got a better deal - that their pensions are going up as of two weeks ago - without Liberal Democrats. These are big differences."

'Simple question'

Amid claims by senior Lib Dems that opponents of changing the voting system are personalising the campaign by attacking the Lib Dem leader, Mr Clegg said the public wanted to focus on arguments over the merits of the two systems.

"I think what everyone should do on the yes campaign and the no campaign is at least treat people like adults. They do not want a mud slinging debate."

"People know they have to answer the simple question 'do you want the current system that produced the expenses scandal and all the rest of it or do you want something better. That is the question and frankly however much mud is slung that will remain the question until 5 May."

No 10 has said the Conservatives' referendum campaign is focused on pointing out the deficiencies of alternative vote and the strengths of first-past-the-post and not on attacking Mr Clegg.

But former Labour Cabinet minister Hazel Blears said opponents of AV were right to focus on Mr Clegg since he was responsible for the referendum in the first place.

"Unfortunately it is a fact that Mr Clegg has broken promises he made at the general election - tuition fees, the increase to VAT and the cuts being felt by councils across the country," she said. "AV would ensure these types of U-turns take place time and time again."

More than 9,500 council seats in 279 English local authorities are up for grabs on 5 May in the biggest test of public opinion since last year's general election