Rishi Sunak will lose “dozens” of Conservatives seats at the next general election if he fails to stop sewage being pumped into rivers, according to Sir Ed Davey.
The Liberal Democrats’ leader pressed for greater action on “one of the biggest environmental crimes in our country” as he spoke at his party’s spring conference in York.
Water companies are only permitted to release sewage during periods of heavy rain so the system does not back up – but campaigners last year warned firms released raw sewage into UK rivers and seas almost 150 times during dry weather in a 12-month period.
Sir Ed made clear issue has become a key battleground for the Lib Dems in local and nation elections, as they bid for swifter progress to prevent sewage dumping.
Calling the Tories “mutinous pirates”, he said voters want “an end to the Conservatives letting water companies get away with pumping filthy sewage straight into our rivers”.
He added: “That is one of the biggest environmental crimes in our country today and it’s a crime that will cost the Conservatives dozens of seats if they don’t act”.
Government plans released last month outlined how water companies in England will be required to explain why sewage spillages into rivers and seas are happening and what is being done to fix them.
Ministers are also consulting on making it easier and quicker to slap polluting companies with penalties, so they are made to pay immediately rather than wait for lengthy criminal prosecutions to conclude.
Sir Ed earlier compared Tory MPs to “mutinous pirates” as Britain encountered choppy waters, telling Lib Dem members: “We needed Hornblower. They gave us Pugwash.”
Accusing the government of “total defeatism” and having “nothing left to offer”, the Lib Dem leader said: “Take economic growth. Remember when governments used to talk about targeting three, four, five per cent? Rishi Sunak’s target – anything above zero.
He added: “It’s like a mid-table football club with a new manager, targeting to avoid relegation rather than a place in the Champions League. The way Conservative MPs talk nowadays, it’s like they know the truth: their government needs to be put out of its misery.”
The party leader received sustained applause from members as he spoke of the need to “repair our broken relationship with Europe” after Brexit.
He claimed the Lib Dems have a “real plan to fix Britain’s trade”, which will “tear down the Conservatives’ trade barriers, rip up their red tape, and rebuild the ties of trust and friendship with our European neighbours”.
Sir Ed has not committed to re-joining the EU single market immediately, but the party adopted a position of seeking to single market membership once “the ties of trust and friendship are renewed” after the 2022 spring conference.
The party’s four-point for closer ties includes stronger links on education programmes; a UK-EU returns agreement on asylum seekers; greater access for British agri-food products to the single market; and an eventual effort to re-join the single market once trust is restored.
Tory chairman Greg Hands dismissed Sunday’s conference attack by Sir Ed, firing back: “Time and time again, the Liberal Democrats have shown they cannot be trusted to deliver for the British people. They are out of touch with the people’s priorities on key issues like housing, energy and immigration.”