UK Politics

Lib Dem unease showing ahead of Clegg gathering

Nick Clegg and David Cameron
Image caption Mr Clegg's proximity to David Cameron has made some Lib Dems nervous

In the two months since the coalition government was formed, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has probably seen more of his Conservative counterparts than his fellow Liberal Democrats.

But on Thursday, Liberal Democrat MPs, peers and councillors are gathering for a frank exchange of views about life in government.

Two months in you would hardly expect a great revolt against the coalition deal - indeed many are positively purring with pleasure - but a sizeable number of Liberal Democrats are unhappy.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's supping with the devil," the former MP Sandra Gidley said.

"If you want to get things done, you can't sup with a long spoon but maybe we're supping with too short a spoon at the moment."

Ms Gidley cites a series of policy concessions by Mr Clegg which she regards as unacceptable.

The decision to raise VAT to 20%, she says, "didn't make me happy".

"I used to be a health spokesperson - the health white paper, I couldn't see any of our key policies from the election in there," she adds.

"I understand early in a Parliament we may not be able to influence things because a lot of this work has already been done but that's got to change."

Policy battles

There are serious policy battles ahead, some of which will pit Mr Clegg against party heavyweights such as his predecessor Sir Menzies Campbell.

"This is uncharted territory. Instead of the luxury of opposition we have to adopt the more constructive, and you might argue more responsible position, of being in government," Sir Menzies says.

"All parties are coalitions. There are different nuances in view. Sometimes there are quite strong objections on principle.

"For example, I've already made it clear that if the Browne inquiry recommends that the cap should be raised on tuition fees, and the coalition government accepts that, then I will vote against that."

The divisions among Liberal Democrats are not just about policy.

Most of it is about image and direction. Where is the party going? How can it remain distinctive?

Most pressing for local councillors is the question of how traditional Liberal Democrat voters can be persuaded to stick with a party that seems so comfortable supporting the Conservatives.

"If you're an MP you know you don't have to face the electorate for five years. Local councillors will be facing elections next year," Richard Kemp, who leads Liberal Democrats at the Local Government Association, says.

"So whilst in Parliament you can be sanguine and say things will be difficult for two or three years, the party faces elections next May and those will be difficult elections for us, no doubt about it."

Backbench committees

Partly in an effort to bind the party together, the Liberal Democrat hierarchy have set up backbench committees to track the work of the coalition.

The idea is to improve contact between Lib Dem Ministers and the party, but some see the committees as a way of ensuring there is no backsliding on party policy.

Don Foster, who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, says the benefits of the committees will outweigh any headaches they cause Mr Clegg.

"He's the guy who actually authorised their setting up so however much he might worry about what they might do, he also knows it's how to ensure the continued independence of the Liberal Democrats as a party that will fight against the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and others in future general elections," he says.

For Mr Clegg, the warnings signs are there: his party may still be enjoying life in the coalition - it is, after all, the first taste of power they have had for nearly eighty years.

But, equally, many in his party believe Mr Clegg needs to tread carefully. Otherwise he will need more than an away day bonding session to hold his party together.

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