UK Politics

Hague denies AV 'lie' claims, but says coalition secure

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Media captionWilliam Hague says many accusations are directed at the No campaign rather than the Conservatives

William Hague has played down claims that the No campaign in the Alternative Vote referendum has lied, but said the coalition will survive any fallout.

He made the comments after a row escalated over the cost of switching to AV and whether it would benefit parties such as the British National Party.

The Foreign Secretary told the BBC's Andrew Marr show that he agreed with the claims made by the No camp.

Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes said earlier the No campaign was "telling untruths".

'Inventing facts'

Conservative party chairman Baroness Warsi has said changing the UK voting system to AV would mean more votes and legitimacy for the BNP.

She said it would see politicians "pandering to extremist votes".

Mr Hughes said on the Andrew Marr show that she had been "inventing facts".

But Mr Hague supported Baroness Warsi.

He said: "I think she's right, because what do you do in a system where there are third and fourth preferences?

"Will the candidates in marginal seats have to think about how they're going to get the second, third and fourth preferences of people who have voted for the BNP?"

He added: "These things are therefore not disputed facts, they're matters of opinion about the implication of AV and they should be understood as that."

He also said "there was no doubt" that having a more complicated system "would cost more" and that it was a legitimate issue to raise in a campaign.

Mr Hughes, the Lib Dems' deputy leader, said: "The people responsible ought to back off, own up that they are inventing things to try and win the campaign for the status quo and argue on the facts and merits of their campaign which is a poor one rather than trying to frighten people into keeping the current position."

He added that he proposed to go to the Electoral Commission to ensure future elections did not see "untrue statements in official campaigns circulated".

Mr Hague stressed his own objections to the AV system.

"You can argue for a decisive system, which we have most of the time in this country, or you can argue for a proportional system as they have in Germany.

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Media captionSimon Hughes says senior Conservative Baroness Warsi has been "peddling untruths" about AV

"In my view what you can't argue for is a system that is neither decisive nor proportional, that can be indecisive and proportional at the same time," he said.

Coalition survival

BBC political correspondent Louise Stewart said the argument seemed to have "ratcheted up" over the last couple of days, and politicians may not have expected the language to be quite so personal.

"There was a bit of a spat yesterday in interviews between the prime minister and Nick Clegg", she said, "and today Nick Clegg has spoken out in the strongest language we have heard yet."

Mr Clegg described those campaigning for a "No" vote as "a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are," in the Independent on Sunday.

Labour's former home secretary David Blunkett, who is campaigning against AV, accused Mr Clegg of "exaggeration and hyperbole".

"Personalisation and abuse are hardly intended to encourage interest or turnout by the electorate," he said.

William Hague insisted that, despite the row over AV, the coalition was working well.

"Yes, we all have strong feelings but at the end of it the coalition will work very well together as it is at the moment.

"We're used in general election campaigns to accusations flying back and forth and I think a lot of these accusations are directed at the No campaign rather than the Conservative Party.

"In a referendum campaign feelings run high, people get excited. The important thing for people to know is that the coalition is working well together."

Both Mr Hague and Mr Hughes agreed that despite having differing views on whether to change the voting system, the coalition would survive the referendum.

And Mr Hughes said the coalition contained "civilised individuals", who could work well together.

But Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, one of the most senior Liberal Democrats in the government, said it would be a lot more difficult for the coalition partners to work together in the future.

"It is frankly worrying if you have colleagues who you've respected, and who you've worked well with, who are making claims which have no foundation in truth whatsoever", he said.

He said there could be legal action over the "extraordinary allegation" by Chancellor George Osborne that new voting machines would be needed.

"Australia's used (AV) for 80 years without ever using voting machines. If they can't substantiate that, there's simple legal redress", he said. "They had better come clean pretty fast."

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