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March 4, 2014 12:03 am
Nick Clegg has named a five-person Liberal Democrat team, headed by close ally Danny Alexander, to prepare for coalition negotiations with the Conservatives or Labour if the next election produces a hung parliament.
The Lib Dem leader told his MPs and peers on Monday night that the key task of leading the coalition negotiations would go to Mr Alexander, Treasury chief secretary, a fiscal disciplinarian viewed as excessively rightwing by some in his party.
Mr Alexander has a close working relationship with George Osborne, the Tory chancellor, and his appointment could help to smooth the path to a second Lib-Con coalition if the electoral arithmetic points to such a deal.
He will be joined by David Laws, schools minister, and a former Treasury minister who also shares Mr Clegg’s liberal instincts on free markets and sound public finances.
But Mr Clegg has been careful to balance the team, notably with the inclusion of Steve Webb, the left-leaning pensions minister, and two parliamentarians rooted in the party’s local council base: Lynne Featherstone and Baroness Sal Brinton.
The team will be tasked with scoping out the possibilities for a new coalition after the May 2015 election, including common policy ground with the Tories or Labour in what could be a tight election.
David Cameron, Tory leader, and Ed Miliband, Labour leader, have not ruled out a coalition in the event of a hung parliament despite pressure from within their respective parties to exclude such a deal.
Mr Clegg has always argued any coalition would be determined by the votes cast next May, and that he would begin by talking to the party leader with the strongest “mandate”.
That formulation is deliberately vague, since it is possible that David Cameron could secure the most votes in the election but that Labour could win the most seats with as little as 33-35 per cent of the vote. In such circumstances, Lib Dem negotiating leverage would be considerable.
Part of Mr Alexander’s task will be to come up with three or four “non-negotiable” policies that would form the core of the party’s coalition talks, likely to feature on the front page of the party’s manifesto.
The team will also try to avoid the fiasco of the party’s “pledge” in 2010 to oppose increases in university tuition fees, even though it was far from certain the party could deliver in a coalition.
The coalition team is similar to the one set up by Mr Clegg ahead of the 2010 election, where the team was Mr Alexander, Mr Laws, Chris Huhne, the disgraced former energy secretary, and local government veteran Andrew Stunell.
Mr Clegg said: “Like last time, we do not take any outcome of the next election for granted and so we want to be prepared for any eventuality.”
A senior Lib Dem source added: “David Laws has made clear, we will not in any way water down our manifesto for 2015 to accommodate our opponents.”
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