Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader and the party's MP for Sheffield Hallam, today appealed to "ordinary" people not to believe Theresa May's promises that Brexit would not leave them worse off.
"They assume they can pull the wool over people's eyes about the damage Brexit will wreak, and get away with it," Clegg said of May's Conservative party, during a speech setting out his party's position on Brexit in London on Tuesday.
Clegg said he believed the Tories had so far showed a "a growing, swaggering complacency" that they would secure a landslide victory in June's general election.
His comments follow reports from local media in the key Lib Dem battleground of Cornwall, where May was visiting local businesses on Tuesday, that claimed journalists were banned from filming the visit or speaking to the prime minister.
The Lib Dems have repeatedly pitched themselves as the only consistently Remain-supporting party that will challenge May on a hard Brexit deal. There are questions about how far this message is cutting through to the electorate.
“We can't have a strong economy and a hard Brexit,” Clegg continued, warning that a weakening of the pound since the Conservatives were last elected in 2015 was “already hurting the very people who need most help in society".
Clegg said that that people’s income, taxes, schools, and hospitals would be deeply impacted by a hard Brexit. “The Brexit squeeze means the average household is likely to be £500 worse off in 2017 compared to 2016 – and that’s even before the Brexit negotiations have started in earnest,” he said.
Clegg's comments were based on a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research that states average UK household disposable income will drop to £34,800 this year, down from £35,300 in 2016. It says rising inflation and meagre earnings growth are the main reasons for this, driven in part by a weaker pound – although it also says oil prices are a significant factor.
As the Lib Dems’ spokesperson on the EU, Clegg appeared to make a direct appeal to the “just about managing” ordinary working families May has attempted to align herself with since she took office as PM last July.
“If you’re going on holiday to Spain this summer, everything you pay for in euros, from accommodation to ice cream, will be 17% more expensive than it was two years ago,” Clegg said. “If you’re going to Florida this summer, it’ll feel like a 23% hike."
Food “on the supermarket shelves” and petrol prices are among the things that would see steep price hikes in the wake of Brexit, he said.
“Some companies that rely on imported ingredients are already trying to disguise the impact of devaluation on their prices through creative repackaging, as we have seen with reduced chocolate in Toblerone,” Clegg said, prompting a warm response from the audience at the mention of the chocolate bar. “It’s a big thing!” he added.
“Anyone who claims that you will not be worse off after this recent devaluation isn’t being straight with you,” Clegg said.
He further highlighted a gulf between the Conservatives and the wider electorate that the Lib Dems have put at the centre of their campaign since its launch in south London on Monday.
“This Brexit squeeze won’t be felt by the prime minister and her supporters in the right-wing media; it will be paid for by ordinary people out of their wages, by sick people needing treatment on the NHS, by elderly people needing care, and by children who won’t receive the education they deserve,” Clegg said.
He made his case equally to those who voted to leave the EU, citing the infamous £350 million a week for the NHS pledge on the side of the Brexit bus as an example that the public had been “tricked” by those advocating for Leave.
“They’re tricking you by pretending there’s no Brexit squeeze,” he said. “Far from ‘taking back control’, they have left our country – and especially future generations – dangerously exposed.”
Clegg pinpointed poorer areas of the South West, where May has today been making her case in a marginal seat the Lib Dems hope to win, as a place that could be particularly impacted by the everyday costs of Brexit.
“There’s a gulf between what the Westminster elite think Brexit will be and what it will actually mean,” he said.
Earlier on Tuesday Clegg called Piers Morgan, the Good Morning Britain presenter, “pompous” after Morgan accused Clegg of being part of a “cynical” Westminster elite as a result of his role in increasing tuition fees during the 2010–15 Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.
“I'll take your word that you are the shining bastion of non-cynicism, in otherwise a cesspit of cynicism in Westminster. And thank God you're here," Morgan said to Clegg on the show.
“Extraordinary man,” Clegg muttered under his breath, before adding, “You're so pompous, Piers. You really are... This level of sanctimony, this early in the morning."
Later, during Tuesday afternoon's speech, Clegg said he would like to see the prime minister also interviewed by Morgan and subjected to the same "baptism of fire" he had experienced that morning.
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has repeatedly ruled out the prospect of forming a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives, in an apparent attempt to distance the party from the period that directly preceded 2015’s spectacular losses in Westminster.
On Tuesday Farron dismissed an accusation from the Conservatives that he was gearing up to form a “coalition of chaos”.
“The prime minister can trot out these useless and empty phrases as much as she likes, it still does not make them true,” Farron said.
“The Liberal Democrats will not go into coalition with her party, nor Labour. You are both Brexit-supporting parties, we are not.
“You are both, in different ways trying to ruin the country.”
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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