Lib-Lab pact 'would swamp Tories'

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An electoral pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats has been brought a step closer by a private opinion poll showing that it would sweep the Tories from power.

A political alliance, with Labour's John Smith as leader and the Liberal Democrats' Paddy Ashdown as his deputy, would win the support of 58 per cent of voters, leaving the Conservatives languishing at 26 per cent.

Opponents of a Lib-Lab pact have always argued that it would drive some Liberal Democrat voters into the Tory camp, but the poll seems to suggest that they would stay firm.

The Gallup survey, which followed a Liberal Democrat initiative, comes against a background of informal dialogue between Labour campaigners for electoral reform, including Robin Cook, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, and senior Liberal Democrats. Both parties are awaiting the findings of Labour's Plant committee on voting reform, which is likely to back some form of proportional representation.

Senior Liberal Democrats believe that a new opportunity for realignment will open soon when, as they expect, the party does well in the 6 May local elections and Newbury by-election. Results similar to those of recent council by-elections, in which the Liberal Democrat vote rose by 16 per cent, would remind Labour modernisers that they need the centre party's support.

Gallup's polling, carried out at the suggestion of Lord Holme of Cheltenham, a former president of the Liberal Party, took place during the first week of February with a sample of 1,034 voters. The combined vote share was one point higher than Gallup's separate ratings for the two parties.

A full electoral pact remains unlikely, but senior Liberal Democrats hope for an arrangement whereby the two parties direct their fire against the Tories, rather than each other. This could be underscored by a convergence of views on proportional representation.

On Channel 4's A Week in Politics, Mr Ashdown said he was 'trying to construct an alternative mechanism for governing this country', adding: 'If say you to me 'is the process of co-operation between parties part of that?' my answer is 'yes' '

One senior Liberal Democrat colleague added: 'We need an understanding like that between the Edwardian parlour-maid and the second footman. Everyone knows what is intended but no one is brash enough to spell it out.'

Prospects for accord have been boosted by co-operation between the two parties in the Commons which led to the Government's defeat on an amendment to the Maastricht Bill last Monday.

Labour business managers expect another victory over the Government, with Lib-Dem help, when the Commons votes on amendment 27 on the Social Chapter. Discussion of joint tactics on other amendments is under way.

Electoral co-operation will prove more difficult. Labour's general election candidate at Newbury sparked off a fierce debate by suggesting that the Liberal Democrats should be given an open field against the Conservatives in the forthcoming by-election. The Parliamentary Labour Party rejected the idea, installing an experienced campaigner, Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool, as by-election campaign manager.

Next year's elections to the European Parliament could prove the first test of any new co-operation. With no European seats to defend, one Liberal Democrat described the Euro-elections as 'the political equivalent of safe sex with little to lose'.

The former Defence Minister Alan Clark confirmed last night that Newbury Conservatives have rejected him as their candidate for the by-election. Mr Clark failed to make the shortlist of 18.