LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May is making a "huge mistake" by heading for a hard Brexit - severing ties with the European single market, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said.
"I didn't meet a single voter who voted for Brexit who wanted to see British exporters being damaged and the City of London being cut off from the single market," the 49-year-old former Liberal Democrat leader told AFP in an interview.
"I think that Theresa May and her government are making a huge mistake." In a speech on Sunday, the prime minister said she would begin Brexit negotiations by the end of March and would
prioritise controlling immigration.
Experts say that to curb immigration - one of the key issues during the June 23 referendum - Britain may have to leave the single market, which allows free movement of people. But opponents including business leaders have called for a more gradual exit that would retain access to the single market.
And today, the pound dropped to a 31-year-low against the dollar as the markets began to price in a higher likelihood of a "hard" Brexit. Clegg, his party's spokesman on Brexit, said it was becoming clear that the government was taking a "fairly aggressive and confrontational approach" and he was "very perplexed" by the strategy.
Seen as one of Britain's most pro-European politicians, Clegg speaks fluent Dutch and Spanish, has a Spanish wife and spent an early part of his career as a member of the European Parliament. After a dramatic rise to power, dubbed "Cleggmania" during the 2010, he became deputy prime minister to David Cameron in an uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Clegg said he tried to dissuade Cameron from his decision to hold a referendum on EU membership. "I told him on many occasions that I thought it was very foolish to hold a referendum in effect to settle an internal party dispute," he said, suggesting Cameron was under pressure from the rise of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party. Cameron campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU and "was convinced he was going to win," said Clegg.
In the end, Britons voted by 52 to 48 per cent to leave the EU, sending a shockwave through the union and British politics that eventually claimed the scalp of Cameron himself. Clegg described May, who replaced Cameron, as a technocrat who lacked the imagination and vision necessary for her job.
"She is very diligent, she is very hard-working, and she immerses herself in detail, she is quite sort of technocratic, she is quite tough, she can be quite stubborn," he said. While Clegg said such characteristics were good qualities for a politician in government, he was not entirely positive about May's style of politics. "I never really saw very much imagination, or flexibility, or instinct, or vision, which I think is what you need in a prime minister," he said.