Nick Clegg has told the Liberal Democrats to prepare for another five years in power amid new evidence that voters are warming to the idea of coalition government.
A ComRes poll for The Independent found that 34 per cent of people believe that Britain is better off with a coalition government than if the Conservatives or Labour had won the last general election outright – higher than the 29 per cent figure recorded last July.
The findings are a boost for the Lib Dems. Last night, a bullish Mr Clegg announced that he is setting up a team to prepare for negotiations with other parties in the event of another hung parliament after next year’s general election. The Deputy Prime Minister insists he is not taking voters for granted but is increasingly confident his party will remain in office and that Britain is entering an era of coalition government.
A senior Lib Dem source said: “We were well prepared last time but Nick wants us to be even better prepared this time. We have every intention of returning to government after the election to anchor the country in the centre ground.”
According to ComRes, a majority of people (54 per cent) do not agree that Britain is better off with a coalition than a Conservative or Labour government – but that figure has fallen from 57 per cent in July last year. Current Conservative supporters (37 per cent) are more likely than Labour voters (31 per cent) to believe that Britain is better off with a coalition.
Many Tory and Labour supporters would be expected to prefer one-party rule. Significantly, the proportion of people thinking the country is better off with a coalition is much higher than the Lib Dems’ current 10 per cent poll rating. That will raise Lib Dem hopes of doing better than that at next year’s election amid growing signs of disenchantment with the “big two” parties which no longer dominate the political landscape.
The Tories and Labour will react coolly to the Lib Dem preparations and rule out any negotiations before the general election. In public, the two biggest parties insist they are going all-out for a majority. In private, some senior figures in both parties concede that another hung parliament is the most likely outcome next year. A debate has begun in both parties about whether it would be better to go into full-scale coalition with Lib Dems or to run a minority government in the hope of securing an overall majority at a second election, perhaps after a year or 18 months.
Mr Clegg told a meeting of Lib Dem MPs last night that Danny Alexander, the Chief Treasury Secretary, will head the team planning talks with other parties in a “balanced parliament”. The other members are David Laws, the Schools Minister who is in charge of the Lib Dem manifesto; Baroness (Sal) Brinton; Lynne Featherstone, the International Development Minister and Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister.
Mr Clegg said: “The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election as a strong, independent party. Though, like last time, we do not take any outcome of the next election for granted and so we want to be prepared for any eventuality. By preparing well, we will ensure that the Liberal Democrat Party is best placed to deliver a stronger economy in a fairer society in whichever circumstances we find ourselves in.”
He declared: “The worst outcome next year would be either a Conservative or Labour-only government - because only the Lib Dems can anchor the country in the centre ground.”
Although the Lib Dem manifesto will spell out the party’s priorities in another coalition, officials deny that it will water down its programme to accommodate its opponents.
But one said: “It is right that we take the appropriate steps to ensure that the Liberal Democrats are fully prepared to make our contribution to strong and stable government, should the election once again return a parliament with no party in a majority.”
Mr Alexander said: “We owe it to the British people to be as well prepared as possible so that we can ensure a responsible, stable outcome, as we did in 2010.”
He added: “We are on a journey as a party of government. Having Lib Dems in government next time is the only way to secure the economic recovery, keep British politics in the centre ground, and deliver a stronger economy in a fairer society. That is why we take preparing seriously.”
Last week, Downing Street played down reports that David Cameron would promise he would not enter another coalition with the Lib Dems but did not totally deny them. A formal manifesto commitment is unlikely, as Mr Cameron wants to keep his options open.
In public, Labour has rebuffed speculation about a Lib-Lab coalition. But Labour sources admit that bridges are being built with Mr Clegg’s party behind the scenes and that Labour anger about his decision to enter a coalition with the Tories is cooling.
Labour is reluctant to talk up a deal with Mr Clegg since that might encourage Lib Dem 2010 voters who have switched to Mr Miliband’s party to return to the Lib Dem fold.
ComRes interviewed 1,004 adults by telephone between 26 February and 2 March. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.