Elizabeth Lynne, the Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale, and 16 senior Liberal Democrats, including local council leaders and parliamentary candidates, wrote to Mr Ashdown yesterday to protest at the direction the party was taking under his leadership.
In the letter, which The Independent has obtained, Ms Lynne says: "We need assurances that the party is not going to be sold out for a handful of Cabinet seats. If this were to be the case you certainly would not have our support on it. We are an independent party and must remain so."
Ms Lynne told The Independent that she believed many Liberal Democrat MPs shared her concern about the close co-operation with the Labour Party. But leadership sources made it clear that the Liberal Democrat leader is determined to carry on with the strategy, which could have a crucial bearing on the outcome of the general election. "We understand their concerns, but they are a small minority of people who are isolated," one source said. Mr Ashdown will tell the dissidents that the party endorsed his strategy by ending "equidistance" between Tory and Labour at its party conference in 1995.
The extraordinarily frank terms of the letter will astonish the Liberal Democrats' opponents, but Mr Ashdown's aides said there were no plans to discipline Ms Lynne.
The letter said: "We are totally opposed to any pact or coalition with Labour before or after the next general election and feel that this is in actual fact what you are working towards.
"We don't believe that you will be able to carry the party with you and it will lead to inevitable splits which could irreparably damage the Liberal Democrats."
The focus for their unrest is the joint commission on constitutional reform headed by Robin Cook, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, and the Liberal Democrats' Robert Maclennan, which is preparing plans for an incoming Labour government to deliver Scottish and Welsh devolution, reform of the House of Lords, and possible voting reform for the Commons.
Ms Lynne, an outspoken critic of closer links with Labour at local council level, said joint initiatives on constitutional reform and other issues were seen as a "Lib-Lab pact. We believe there should be no more joint press conferences on this or anything else ... We need to have more statements about our distinctive policies and we should be attacking the Government and Labour on key issues."
Leading party members who signed the letter included Ashley Byrne, a member of the party's federal executive, Ron Marshall, the Liberal Democrat mayor of Preston, and councillor Peter Moore, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield.Reuse content