Leading Lib Dem warns of more defections to Tories

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Indy Politics

A prominent Liberal Democrat has said that some senior figures in the party may defect to the Tories because David Cameron has positioned them on the political centre ground.

Harold Elletson, a former Tory MP who joined the Liberal Democrats in 2002, said some Liberal Democrat MPs were considering whether to switch to the Tories - and hinted that he might rejoin his old party.

The prospect of defections has added to the Liberal Democrats' turmoil as they struggle to recover from the resignations of their leader Charles Kennedy, and home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten. One MP said yesterday he believed up to three of his colleagues might quit if Simon Hughes, the most left-wing candidate, wins the race to succeed Mr Kennedy.

Mr Elletson's remarks undermined attempts by the party hierarchy to play down the defection to the Tories of former parliamentary candidate Adrian Graves, which The Independent revealed yesterday.

Mr Elletson, who chairs the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs forum, said: "There are a number of people who I know about who are being talked about or who have spoken to me who are concerned about the direction the Liberal Democrats might take, who are interested in the direction the Conservatives are taking and who will be watching David Cameron very closely." Asked if that included MPs, he replied: "Yes." He said Mr Cameron was "a very different type" of Tory leader and presented a "real challenge" for the Liberal Democrats.

Pressed whether he might defect, he said: "I think I and many others have been impressed by what we've seen so far [of David Cameron] and would no doubt be prepared to consider all sorts of things."

Mr Elletson predicted the Liberal Democrats would lose some of their 62 seats at the next general election and must come to "some sort of arrangement" or coalition with the Tories.

Francis Maude, the Tory chairman, who paraded Mr Graves at a photocall, said: "The Conservative Party is changing... There is now a new home for Liberal Democrat voters ."

Responding to Mr Graves' defection, Mr Hughes said: "The Liberal Democrats are the only party which has consistently fought for our environment, our civil liberties and a fairer tax system." A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: "If Mr Graves truly believes in civil liberties, in the environment, and in social justice, he will be sadly disappointed by the Conservative Party."

Nominations closed yesterday in the leadership contest, with three candidates winning the necessary level of support to run - Mr Hughes, Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting leader, and Chris Huhne, the party's economics spokesman. The winner of the ballot among the party's 75,000 members will be announced on 2 March. Sir Menzies has won the public backing of 27 MPs; Mr Hughes 10 and Mr Huhne seven. Bookmakers Ladbrokes put Sir Menzies at 10/11, Mr Hughes 13/8 and Mr Huhne 7/2.