Will hung parliament save Lib Dems?

As the opinion polls predict a hung parliament, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES talks to Liberal Democrat activists on how they should be planning to fight the next election campaign.

As the opinion polls predict a hung parliament, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES talks to Liberal Democrat activists on how they should be planning to fight the next election campaign.

THE clear winners of the past 12 months have been the Conservatives. They went into last year's conference eight points behind Labour in the opinion polls.

Today, the poll of polls indicates David Cameron and his troops are four points clear of Labour. That's a 6% swing to the Tories in the past 12 months, with the Lib Dems falling 2% in the year.

Given all the turmoil in the Labour Party, that lead ought to be higher. And it is nowhere big enough to propel Mr Cameron into Downing Street.

The East Anglia barometer seats of Ipswich, Colchester and Waveney would not elect Tory MPs on such a swing. Put starkly, if the Tories are to win the next election, they must pick up at least two of these three seats plus Great Yarmouth, Harlow and the new south Essex seat centred around Basildon.

The poll of polls indicates that if an election was held today, Labour would be the largest party on 299 seats, with the Tories on 270 and the Lib Dems on 50.

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For Lib Dem activists here in Brighton, the figures make grim reading but also present an enormous opportunity. The bad news is that their number of MPs would fall by a dozen. The good news is that one or other of the two main parties would seek to form a coalition with the Lib Dems.

In reality, that's the best the Lib Dems could hope to expect from the next election. Even their most starry eyed optimists don't believe they'll win the election. But if neither of the other parties has an outright majority, then Sir Ming Campbell will be courted to send his Lib Dems into a coalition.

The only time since the end of World War II when a coalition was considered was in February 1974, when Ted Health - who had called an unnecessary election on `who governs Britain' during the miners' strike- failed to win an outright majority and sought a deal with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe.

Protracted negotiations were unsuccessful and the Queen sent for Harold Wilson to form a minority Labour government. His successor James Callaghan, in a similar situation, entered into a Lab-Lib pact, which fell apart in 1979 and the winter of discontent.

Lib Dem activists may dream of Sir Ming as Foreign Secretary - it's generally agreed that in a coalition, the minority partner should hold one of the three great offices of state - but they believe it will be counter productive to go into an election with that aim planted in the electorate's mind.

Terry Sutton of North Essex constituency says Labour MP Clare Short, who faces expulsion from the parliamentary party for saying the nation should vote for a hung parliament, was wrong to set out a coalition strategy.

"The Lib Dems would benefit of course, but we have to campaign in every seat we fight to get a Lib Dem MP elected. That's got to be our fundamental aim," said Mr Sutton. "We can't go from seat to seat mixing and matching - if one party ends up short of a majority, then so be it. But until that happens, the Lib Dems are in it to win it."

Peter Dulieu of Bury St Edmunds constituency agreed. "We must wait to see the result before we start contemplating doing deals. In Bury, we expect to finish at least second next time. Holding out the prospect of a hung parliament before the voters is no way for the Lib Dems to make progress."

Although Europe would be an obvious hurdle in any talks between the more federally minded Lib Dems and the Eurosceptic Tories, that's not necessarily a bar to a Con-Lib Dem coalition, according to Tim Huggan, from West Suffolk and the party's leading strategist in the East of England.

"The easy way out is to offer a referendum in any changes over Europe. But generally, we would have to see what the manifestos of Labour and the Conservatives contain before we could agree to go into partnership."

Talk of a coalition more than two years before an election is likely is, of course, premature. Yet it could split the Lib Dems apart. There are younger, more right-wing senior Lib Dems who would rather line up with a David Cameron led Tory government than what is likely to be Sir Ming Campbell's gut instinct of a centre-left social justice partnership with Labour.

The big bargaining point would be to see which party offered the Lib Dems their Holy Grail - proportional representation. If Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair, he is unlikely to want a change in the voting system which would totally disadvantage his party. The Tories are not keen either, even though their party is - like the Lib Dems - under represented in Parliament because of the way first-past-the post favours the Labour.

As with further European integration, the likely solution would be to left the people decide in a referendum.

A lot can happen before the next election. Who'd have thought at the end of last year's conference season that 12 months down the line, the Lib Dems would have knifed popular Charles Kennedy in a Westminster coup over his drinking problem and that Tony Blair would have lost control of his party?

Opinion polls change. But if you ask Lib Dems whether they would trade fewer MPs for seats in a Cabinet, then coalition would win every time.

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