Lib-Dem decision kills off coalition

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The joint administration run by Labour and the Liberal Democrats on Berkshire County Council, which acted as a role model for similar arrangements elsewhere, has collapsed amid bitterness and recrimination.

Yesterday, the council completed the move from a power-sharing arrangement to a minority Liberal Democrat administration with committee chairmanships being decided by all-party panels.

The end of the four-year administration is a blow to those in both parties who believe that their views on many issues are so similar that anti-Tory coalitions could become the norm in many parts of Britain.

Labour leader Dr Lawrence Silverman said yesterday: "Everyone in Berkshire should now realise that a vote for the Liberal Democrats at the general election will be a vote for the Tories."

But Bob Mowatt, leader of the Liberal Democrats, which with 34 seats is the largest party, said: "In practice it doesn't work with two leaders, as we know from the days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance."

The coalition began in 1992, when the Conservatives lost their majority at a by-election, and was formalised the following year.

The council had joint leaders, shared committee chairmanships and had joint councillors' meetings and a combined administration panel. But many in the Labour Party nationally had doubts about the arrangement.

Pete Ruhemann, deputy leader of the Labour group, said yesterday: "All this has come to an end because of the determination of the Liberal Democrats to be top dogs."

Mr Mowatt said that the Liberal Democrats were happy to continue sharing out chairmanships and that his party had offered Labour, which has 25 seats, the leadership of the council for a year as part of a deal to abolish sole leadership.

The council now has no official leader and committee chairmen who hold office for the duration of meetings only. The sceptics predict that it is a recipe for chaos.