Lib-Dems dash hope of pact

PADDY ASHDOWN'S hopes of wide-spread cooperation with Labour on key policies have been dashed by his MPs.

He has been told by the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party that the only policy area he can discuss with ministers is European security and defence.

Senior Liberal Democrat MPs were asked before Christmas to come up with policy areas that could be discussed with Labour ministers in the joint cabinet committee of ministers and Labour MPs.

But they concluded that the Liberal Democrats should not discuss policies such as education, health and transport with Labour ministers but continue to oppose the Government in these areas in Parliament.

The resignation of Peter Mandelson, the Trade Secretary, who was in favour of closer co-operation with the Liberal Democrats, has prompted a backlash by Lib-Dem MPs who believe they were being "pushed too far" into joint policy-making. Many members of the Cabinet also privately hope that the departure of Mr Mandelson will mean that the Prime Minister will scrap his pact with Mr Ashdown. Their views are being echoed in the Liberal Democrats who fear that "cosying up to the Government" will mean the end to the party's identity and make it more difficult to oppose Labour at the next election.

Norman Baker, Lib-Dem MP for Lewes, said last night: "John Prescott is saying that we should concentrate on material substance which is what many Liberal Democrat MPs have been saying all along. Liberal Democrat MPs believe that Mr Mandelson was trying to force the pace of co-operation."

Senior Liberal Democrat party sources say Mr Ashdown has agreed that future areas of co-operation must receive the full backing of his MPs.