The former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has accused Theresa May of treating European leaders as if they were home office civil servants she can “bark instructions at” in Brexit negotiations.
Leaks of last week’s dinner with European commission president Jean-Claude Junker revealed that May was met with disbelief when she insisted that trade talks should occur before agreement about a divorce bill.
May dismissed the claims as “Brussels gossip” aimed at undermining the UK. But Clegg said he had no sympathy for May after being on the wrong side of leaks from her office while serving as a colleague in the coalition government.
Speaking before his first speech of the election campaign on Tuesday, Clegg said: “I remember [she] – or rather the hitmen and hitwomen in her office – used to leak furiously when I was in coalition if they didn’t like something.”
Clegg, the Liberal Democrats’ EU spokesman, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What is worrying about the reports, if they are true, is that Number 10 appears to be treating the rest of the EU as if they were running the Home Office – just barking instructions at the EU and expecting them to fall into line.”
He added: “[These are] complex Rubix cube negotiations, which requires agility and charm to be successful. None of that appears to be in evidence at that dinner last week.”
But there was sympathy for May from Daniel Korski, David Cameron adviser during negotiations with the EU before last year’s referendum. He said Juncker’s office had form in trying to undermine the UK through leaks.
He told Today: “This is the usual spin and spurn that we saw from the commission president’s office over the course of the negotiations that David Cameron took [part in]. I’m not surprised that we are seeing them now.”
Korki added: “I think we should be a bit cautious about believing everything that we hear.”
Clegg also accused the prime minister of trying to “pursue the most uncompromising version of Brexit”.
He said May had “chosen to throw the single market baby out with EU bathwater|”.
“She has chosen – and it wasn’t on the ballot paper in the referendum – not only to quit the EU’s political institutions, but also to sever our links with Margaret Thatcher’s single market and to quit the customs union as well.
“That will put us as a country at a greater distance economically speaking from the EU than countries like Turkey, Norway, Iceland – even little Liechtenstein. All of whom are out of the EU but are participants either in the single market or the customs union. And that’s why the Brexit squeeze that we are already seeing is going to be made considerably worse, which is one of the reasons why she has decided to have an early election, because she knows there is bad news coming down the track.”
Clegg warned that if the Tories secured a massive landslide in the election May could “ignore everybody and everything for the next five years and do exactly what she likes”.
He said May appeared to have a problem with an dissent. “The Conservatives have clearly got it into their heads that opposition is a sort of dirty word and not a legitimate activity in our democracy … Pro-EU Conservatives are being squashed and silenced at the moment.”