Lib Dem crisis deepens as candidate defects to Tories

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Indy Politics

The sense of crisis engulfing the Liberal Democrats has deepened after one of their parliamentary candidates defected to the Conservative Party.

Adrian Graves, who stood at the 1997 and 2005 elections for Suffolk West, said his decision was a response to David Cameron modernising the Tories rather than the "catastrophe" in the Liberal Democrats after the resignation of the party's leader Charles Kennedy and home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten.

Mr Graves is the first prominent Liberal Democrat to defect to the Tories since Mr Cameron became leader last month. At Westminster, there is speculation in Liberal Democrat circles that up to three MPs may consider switching to the Tories.

His announcement yesterday will heighten Liberal Democrat fears that the party could be marginalised by the revitalised Tories and a torrent of damaging headlines over the ousting of Mr Kennedy, after he admitted a drink problem, and Mr Oaten's resignation after allegations of a relationship with a male prostitute.

It is understood that many grassroots Liberal Democrats have sent protest messages to party headquarters warning that the shambles of the past two weeks will damage their prospects at the May local authority elections.

Mr Graves, 57, who decided to quit the Liberal Democrats before Christmas, said: "I decided to move on before the latest round of catastrophe. I have no regrets."

A public relations consultant, he worked with Mr Oaten in business before he entered Parliament in 1997, knows Mr Kennedy well and worked closely on party campaigns with his wife, Sarah, an active member in London, where Mr Graves stood as a candidate at the 1994 European elections.

Mr Graves said it was "quite extraordinary" that Mr Oaten decided to run for the party leadership. "I have a high respect for Mark Oaten. I am shocked by what happened and I am sure my former colleagues were. I find it incredible that he was prepared to take that risk. It is very sad," he said. He wished the "execution" of Mr Kennedy had been done more discreetly rather than by a "scissor movement" among his senior colleagues.

Mr Graves, who joined the Liberal Democrats in 1990, said he started to reconsider his position when he heard Mr Cameron's pronouncements on issues such as health and Europe. "I thought, 'hang on a minute, that is what I have been saying'. He has caught the imagination. I haven't changed. I have stayed exactly where I am. This is a seamless transition for me. I still passionately believe in the things I believed in years ago. It is David Cameron's modernised, compassionate Conservativism that has changed."

Predicting that other Liberal Democrat members would join the Tories, he said: "I am sure I am not going to be the only one." He believed that some Labour members alienated by Tony Blair's presidential style would also switch to Mr Cameron.

Mr Graves said the Liberal Democrats had "some very serious thinking to do" - notably over how the party's structures limited the ability of its leadership and MPs to make policy.

Dismissing the party's claims that Mr Cameron is "no liberal", he said: "He is for real." But he urged people to judge his former party on its values rather than "the unfortunate personal circumstances of two of its leading members."