Lib-Dems offer Blair a 10-year partnership

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is to be offered a 10-year partnership in government by the Liberal Democrats, if he accepts a new package of constitutional proposals.

The Liberal Democrats would agree not to bring down a Blair government in a vote of confidence, although they might oppose some Labour legislation. In return the Liberal Democrats would want a referendum on voting reform early in the first Parliament.

"The country," said a Liberal Democrat source last week, "needs at least 10 years of non-Conservative government." Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, has said that Mr Blair would require two periods of government, rather than one, to transform the country.

Mr Ashdown and his party favour a semi-formal partnership, rather than a full-blooded coalition. One senior Liberal Democrat said: "We want to retain our independence in a way which could be very influential." Another said: "We could identify common interests and, where we disagree, that would not lead to a dissolution of Parliament because we would be agreeing about the direction in which we were going."

Although Liberal Democrats stress their commitment to other issues, like education, Europe and the environment, electoral reform is the most significant area of difference from Labour.

Mr Blair's position remains ambiguous. Last week, in an interview with the New Statesman, he pledged for the first time a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform in the lifetime of his first Parliament in power. But he said he was against proportional representation, because he has "never been convinced that small parties do not then get disproportionate power". That would seem to rule out the Liberal Democrats' favoured Single Transferable Vote, which would probably give them more than 100 MPs. However, Mr Blair could be amenable to the Alternative Vote system, which would still strengthen Liberal Democrat representation, but not so dramatically.

After flak from Labour dissidents over his policy document last week, Mr Blair may relish the idea of the Liberal Democrats as a buffer against the left.

A referendum on electoral reform, some Liberal Democrat sources say, could be held on the same day as referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution and in London on the creation of a new elected body. Robert Maclennan, the party's president, will adjudicate over conflicting arguments on this and other matters as he produces a paper. Labour will then be challenged on its response, which will be seen as a "key indicator" as to future relations between the two parties, one source said.