Senior Liberal Democrats are warning Nick Clegg against forming another coalition if next year’s election produces a hung parliament, with some claiming that striking a five-year deal with Labour would be “like signing our own death warrant”.
A gap is developing between Mr Clegg – who believes the Lib Dems should aim to stay in government after 2015 – and others who believe the party could be destroyed by another five years in coalition.
The tensions between the two sides are expected to surface at October’s Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, as the party takes stock of the damage it has sustained during four years in government with the Tories.
Lib Dem members overwhelmingly backed the coalition with the Tories in 2010 – only about 50 members out of 1,500 attending a special conference opposed it – but things could be different after the next election.
Nick Harvey, former Lib Dem defence minister, said the “balance of opinion outside Westminster” was that the Lib Dems should seek a “more distant relationship” with the largest party in a 2015 hung parliament, short of a coalition.
“It has been a pretty bruising experience,” he said. “We would think twice about another coalition. We would have to strike a much tougher deal if we were to contemplate it. We are a bit older and wiser now.”
Another senior Lib Dem parliamentarian said: “Every night I get down on my knees and pray that the next election doesn’t produce a hung parliament.”
Mr Clegg has acknowledged that the smaller party in a coalition “gets the grief for the bad stuff and the larger party tends to get the credit for the good stuff” but he insists the Lib Dems can flourish in government.
But the party continues to wallow in single figures in opinion polls; some surveys show that it has haemorrhaged two-thirds of the 23 per cent vote share it won at the 2010 election.
Mr Clegg acknowledged at his end-of-term press conference this month that some Lib Dems were cooling on coalition politics and believed that the party needed to regroup and rebuild in opposition.
But he warned the party not be faint-hearted. “The Liberal Democrats have always embraced political pluralism – it’s in our DNA,” he said. “You have to accept that coalition politics are part of the deal.
“You can’t suddenly bail out just at the very point where you are proving that the new politics work.”
Some Lib Dem MPs mutter that Mr Clegg and other senior Lib Dem ministers such as Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander appear to be putting their cabinet careers ahead of the long-term interests of the party.
There is particular concern at the prospect of the Lib Dems forming a coalition with Labour in a hung parliament. Although the Lib Dems are often seen as a party of the left, one MP said a coalition would be “like signing a death warrant”.
Jeremy Browne, former Foreign Office minister and a possible future leadership contender, said: “The Lib Dems can feel comfortable as a party moderating Conservatives by making the government more compassionate.
“It’s difficult to see the Lib Dems feeling comfortable in a role making the Labour party more hard-headed and economically disciplined.”
Another senior MP said that after five years in coalition with the Tories the Lib Dems would lose many seats to Labour; after five years in coalition with Labour, the Tories could take back most of the party’s remaining seats.
“There are quite a few people who feel the party would be hollowed out by another five years in coalition and the rebuilding has to start in opposition.”
The Lib Dems won 57 seats at the last election and the party is braced for significant losses in 2015; however Mr Clegg could still hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
In those circumstances, David Cameron or Ed Miliband might try to form a minority administration instead of talking to Mr Clegg about a formal coalition.
One option might be for the Lib Dems to sit on the opposition benches but to agree to a pact where it supported a minority government’s Budget and Queen’s Speech in exchange for specific deals.
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