'We're at Risk of Being Sidetracked by Euro Obsession and Vote Reform'

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

'We're at Risk of Being Sidetracked by Euro Obsession and Vote Reform'


Byline: Craig Woodhouse talks to Jeremy Browne Liberal Democrat Foreign Office minister

A SENIOR Liberal Democrat minister today warned colleagues they risk being seen as only interested in Europe and voting reform.

Amid continued anger at David Cameron's eurozone veto, Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne urged his party to explain why they are "relevant to the problems the country faces" rather than getting sidetracked.

"It would be a mistake for the Lib-Dems to come to be known in the public minds as the party that in 2011 was the party that was in favour of AV and EU," Mr Browne said in an interview with the Evening Standard. "I think there is a danger that we are defined by a relatively small set of issues that are relevant and significant but do not give a rounded picture of what the Liberal Democrats are in government in order to achieve." Senior Lib-Dems including Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Lord Ashdown have expressed their disappointment after the Prime Minister blocked a new EU treaty last week -- to the delight of Tory Eurosceptics.

The Lib-Dem criticism reflects the mood in a party still bruised from defeat in May's voting reform referendum which saw Coalition tensions stretched to the limit.

Mr Browne, 41, insists his words are not a rebuttal to Mr Clegg but rather an appeal for colleagues to stress core values and achievements in government.

But they are reminiscent of Mr Cameron's 2006 warning to his backbenchers to stop "banging on about Europe" or risk losing the next election, and will carry weight as Mr Browne is seen as a possible future party leader.

"I want us to communicate with more enthusiasm than on any other subject our desire to see a meritocratic, liberal, opportunity society where people regardless of the wealth of their parents can maximise their potential and thrive and prosper," he said.

London-born Mr Browne is the Lib-Dems' man in the Foreign Office, covering key markets including South America and the Far East. He admits it was not the "ideal situation" for Britain to find itself in a one-against-26 situation in Europe last week because the UK's reputation as a "stepping stone" into the EU is a selling point abroad. His focus will now be on making sure those countries do not think we have "disengaged from the European Union".

The former spin doctor concedes there are "lessons to learn" about preparing for negotiations following last week's events. While he says the EU is "vital to our national interest", he echoes Conservative colleagues by insisting the UK is not "isolated in Europe", because it remains a key driver on issues such as the single market. …

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