Lib Dem Conference: Party Discipline: `Gag order' imposed on front bench

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A GAGGING order is to be imposed by Charles Kennedy on his frontbench team to enforce more discipline, with a pledge of collective responsibility for policy decisions.

He will tell the party in his key speech to the conference that he will not allow it to swing to the left under his leadership, warning that it would be the "political cul-de-sac of all time".

Anyone challenging that strategy within his team will face the sack under a tougher code of collective responsibility. The Liberal Democrat leader has told MPs he is adopting a more "collegiate" approach than his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, with a shadow cabinet of up to 22 seats.

But the MPs who are vying for position in his reshuffle after the conference will be told to toe the line once policy is agreed. Any members breaking the agreed line will be out.

It means Mr Kennedy is more likely to bring in dissidents but they will be required to abide by the discipline of collective responsibility. The Liberal Democrats have traditionally resisted strict party discipline but leadership sources believe the dispute over remarks by Simon Hughes, in which he questioned Mr Kennedy's ability on policy, showed the need for more care from the front bench. "Simon has played into Charles's hands, because he is more dependent on Kennedy's patronage," said a senior Liberal Democrat. "And Simon has upset a lot of his colleagues."

Collective responsibility applied under Mr Ashdown but one of his allies said it never worked. "We have never really had collective responsibility, because Paddy did everything. Everybody had to clear everything through Paddy, as a result of which we sometimes looked a mess. Charlie will have a new leadership style, which means that they will have to adopt something like that."

Malcolm Bruce, who yesterday was confirmed as chairman of the parliamentary party, said there was no question of the Liberal Democrats copying New Labour's "control freak" tendencies. "We are not the thought police. We are not going to become Mandelson clones, with pager messages to tell MPs what line to take.

"What Charles is setting up is a more collegiate leadership. The natural corollary of that is that we would expect everyone to support the line once it has been agreed."

In his leadership speech closing the conference, Mr Kennedy will say: "Make no mistake: our future is not as a left of Labour party. That one's been tried. It led to the longest suicide note in history. That would be the political cul-de-sac of all time. Can we spend better should be the question we ask before we see if we need to spend more."

Mr Kennedy's message - echoing the warning by Mr Ashdown on Tuesday - will challenge supporters of Mr Hughes who want to see the party promising more spending on public services, with higher taxation if necessary. The 1p tax earmarked for education could be dropped if the Treasury team decides the Government has enough in its war chest to fund more spending on schools without raising taxes.