Nick Clegg faces a backlash from grassroots Liberal Democrats if he moves his party too close to the Conservatives in a hung parliament.
Two surveys of party members and councillors have warned the Liberal Democrat leader that most of his activists are instinctively hostile to co-operation with David Cameron. Both the Tory leader and Gordon Brown have made overtures to the Liberal Democrats in the past week, indicating that they are contemplating an election result in which the latter will hold the balance of power.
Such an outcome would leave Mr Clegg with a dilemma that one senior party strategist described as a "nightmare". Does he support a Tory minority government that has many ideological differences with the Liberal Democrats, or does he prop up a Labour administration that has squandered a handsome majority? Or should he tell his MPs to consider every government initiative on an issue-by-issue basis, an approach that could be a recipe for instability at Westminster? Julian Astle, the director of the CentreForum think-tank, said: "The assumption that a hung parliament is good news for the Liberal Democrats is false."
Mr Clegg would have to win approval for his tactics from senior colleagues and a special conference of rank-and-file party members. Their centre-left sympathies were made clear in a poll last week which asked activists to choose between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron for Prime Minister after the election. Their verdict was definitive: 58 per cent named the Tory leader as the worst option, with 42 per cent for Mr Brown.
The result mirrored a poll of Liberal Democrat councillors in the autumn, when nearly twice as many said they would like their party to support Labour (31 per cent) in a hung Parliament against just 16 per cent for the Tories.
Feelings have also been running high on Liberal Democrat websites since Mr Cameron offered his olive branch to the party. Christopher Lovell, president of Leeds Liberal Youth, said: "A Conservative government will pursue fundamentally different objectives from a Liberal Democrat one and, although there may be an ... overlap in policy, many Liberal Democrats would find it hard to support even a small amount of what a Tory government tried to do."
Jane Watkinson said: "Both parties are a compromise to what we stand for but, if it came down to it, Labour are closer to our values as we do share common ground in aspects such as constitutional reform and taxes."
A blogger from Norfolk wrote: "Yawning gaps exist between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories on many issues, and David Cameron knows this. So why did he make his statement?"Reuse content