Nick Clegg stands accused of "selling out" by his own supporters. More than half the people who supported the Lib Dems at May's general election believe he has abandoned his principles by entering a coalition government with the Conservatives, a poll for The Independent on Sunday has revealed.
The ComRes survey also showed that four out of 10 people who supported the Lib Dems at the election would have voted for another party if they had known Mr Clegg was going to share power with David Cameron.
The results raise further questions about the political damage the Lib Dems are suffering as a result of their alliance with the Tories as thousands of members gather in Liverpool for their first conference as a governing party for 65 years. Party managers have repeatedly insisted they are in the coalition for the "long haul" and expect a bounce in the polls if the deficit reduction programme leads to a return to economic growth. Mr Clegg is intending to use the conference as a "celebration" of obtaining power in Westminster.
However, senior Lib Dem MPs and activists are alarmed that the party is being punished disproportionately over the coalition's looming programme of deep cuts in public spending. The IoS poll also reveals support for the Lib Dems has fallen three points to 15 per cent in less than two weeks – and is down eight from their share of votes cast in May. Labour has risen one point to 35 per cent since 7 September, and the Tories are down one on 37.
The prolonged slide in Lib Dem support has reawakened complaints about the decision to side with the Tories, rather than Labour, during the negotiations to resolve the inconclusive general election result. Richard Grayson, a former Lib Dem policy director and parliamentary candidate, said: "It was pretty clear that when the vast majority of our votes are anti-Conservative we're facing a backlash for putting the Conservatives in.
"Unless the public is clear that the Government is doing things that the Lib Dems are opposing, they will just come to the conclusion that we do whatever the Tories tell us."
Addressing several hundred activists at an electoral reform rally, Mr Clegg launched an impassioned defence of his decision to join the coalition. Acknowledging the disquiet about the deficit-reduction programme, he added: "There is a long road ahead, that's true. And there are going to be some big and difficult decisions along the way. But after years of campaigning – years of hard work by everyone in this room and countless others over the lifetime of our party – we are finally putting liberal values at the heart of British government." In a riposte to members urging the party to distance itself further from the Tories, he warned there was "no future" for the Lib Dems as a left-wing alternative to Labour.
The leader's message to his party was backed up by a plea for unity from one of his most senior peers. Baroness Walmsley called on colleagues to show "respect" for their Conservative partners and trust the party's leadership.
Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Business secretary, says he expects "brickbats" from some party members at the conference, but insists it is a "minority" within the Lib Dems who are unhappy at the coalition. Writing in The Independent on Sunday, he says: "In both parties there are, of course, people with doubts and reservations and Liberal Democrats will not be bashful in expressing them. By definition, a coalition dilutes the purity of party doctrine since it rests in compromise."
However, the threat to public spending risked overshadowing the start of the party's conference, with members expressing growing unease at the severity of the cuts. David Laws, the former Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, branded cuts to major defence projects "economic lunacy".
The Yeovil MP, who resigned after revelations about his expenses, spoke out amid growing concern that the Treasury is poised to scrap the entire fleet of Lynx Wildcats under construction at AgustaWestland in his constituency, despite £560m of taxpayers' money having already been spent on it. "It would be economic lunacy to even be thinking about cancelling or reducing the scale of the contract at the present time," he told the Western Morning News.
With just a month before the Comprehensive Spending Review, Mr Laws's successor at the Treasury, Danny Alexander, will today take a tough stance against the unions opposing the cuts, claiming they are "spoiling for a fight". In a direct plea to public sector workers, including nurses, teachers and police officers, Mr Alexander will warn: "Please don't allow their political motivations to push you into doing the wrong thing for your country. We do not want to take you on. We want to take you with us."
However, last night Mr Alexander found himself at the centre of a fresh row over the depth of cuts to the welfare budget, telling The Scotsman newspaper that the total savings could exceed the £4bn already floated, which has been heavily criticised by poverty campaigners.
Opponents of the cuts have made clear their intention to hold a series of demonstrations outside the conference centre in Liverpool, including a major rally by the TUC today.