Clegg Vows to Block U.K. Plan to Exit EU Rights Convention

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg vowed to block any attempt by his coalition government partner to withdraw from the European Convention on Human rights, as he told his Liberal Democrat party to stick to the center ground to win votes at the 2015 election.

In a speech aimed at building up her support among Conservative Party grassroot activists, Home Secretary Theresa May said yesterday the U.K. should “stop human rights legislation interfering with our ability to fight crime and control immigration” and consider withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights “and the convention it enforces.”

“The Conservatives would actively take away rights enjoyed by British citizens just to appease their backbenchers,” Clegg told his party’s spring rally in Brighton, south England, today. “Theresa May made a speech arguing the option of leaving the convention should remain ‘on the table.’ Well, I tell you, it won’t be on the cabinet table so long as I’m sitting round it.”

May’s intervention underlines the questions Prime Minister David Cameron is now facing about his leadership direction following the party’s third place ranking in a special election in Eastleigh, southern England, last week, which the Liberal Democrats won. At the same time, Clegg is also reassuring his activists the coalition’s junior partners still have a voice in government.

Natural Party

Clegg used the party’s victory to say the Liberal Democrats are now a natural party of government. Backing them is no longer just a way to show displeasure with the main political parties and hard work could mean greater gains, he said.

“I have spent nearly three years asking you to hold firm,” he told the rally. “But today, Liberal Democrats, I have a different message for you: win.”

Clegg used his keynote speech to attack his coalition partners. While he said Cameron tried to keep his party to the political center ground, he is unable to control his lawmakers - - such as May -- who want to appeal to the party’s traditional concerns of law and order, immigration and maintaining the military’s budget.

“The Conservative party knows it needs to stay on the center ground to have any chance of speaking to ordinary people’s concerns,” Clegg said. “At least the leadership seem to. But they just can’t manage it, no matter how hard they try. They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead they veer off to the right-hand side.”

Mansion Tax

The opposition Labour Party’s treasury spokesman Ed Balls today called on the Liberal Democrats to back his Parliamentary motion on March 12 to impose a so-called “mansion tax” on homes worth more than 2 million pounds ($3 million), which was a Liberal Democrat idea blocked by the Tories in government. Clegg said all Labour “is interested in is striking poses and playing parliamentary games.” The deputy prime minister’s spokesman told reporters in Brighton that the party had not yet decided which way it will vote in the debate.

Clegg also said there is no chance of borrowing more to kick-start the economy, despite calls from his Business Secretary Vince Cable and some party members.

The U.K. will not “flinch on the deficit,” Clegg said. “But to be unflinching is not to be unthinking. The idea that the choice is between a cruel and unbending Plan A and a mythical Plan B is simply not the case.”

“Balancing the books is a judgment, not a science,” Clegg said. “And our plan has always allowed room for maneuver.”

Damage Limitation

The Liberal Democrat leadership has used the rally to remind activists of their success in Eastleigh while also engaging in damage limitation over allegations of sexual harassment by former chief executive Chris Rennard -- denied by the lawmaker -- and the conviction of ex-Cabinet minister Chris Huhne for perverting the course of justice.

Yet, in a blow to Clegg’s leadership, today the Liberal Democrats rejected government plans for so-called secret courts, designed to hear terrorism trials. The measures have ignited some activists’ concerns about civil liberties, as the bill passes through Parliament. Dinah Rose and Jo Shaw, two prominent party figures, publicly resigned today in protest at Clegg’s handling of the bill.

Clegg appealed for the party to display “unity,” saying it is achieving great things in government.

“I know some of you have had a quiet fear, ticking away at the back of your minds,” he said. “The worry that the risk we took was too big,” he said. “No, Liberal Democrats. It may have been a risk, but we took it for the right reasons: to steer Britain through a time of economic crisis; to govern in the national interest; to govern from the center ground; to build a stronger economy, in a fairer society, enabling everyone in Britain to get on in life.

‘‘And that decision will pay off -- for the country, and for us too,’’ he said.

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