Lib Dems told to see Coalition like a marriage

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrats have been told to regard their partnership with the Conservatives as a "marriage" as Nick Clegg tries to calm his party's nerves over their slump in the opinion polls.

A brainstorming session on Liberal Democrat strategy for the party's ministers, MPs, peers and their advisers became dominated by language more in keeping with a relationship counselling session than a policy workshop.

At the "away day" last Thursday, Mr Clegg and his party were briefed by representatives from Liberal parties in the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden so they could learn lessons from countries where coalitions are much more common than in Britain.

The key paper, adopted as the template for the way the Liberal Democrats will behave in government, was headed: "Everything you need to know about coalition politics you already know from your marriage."

The document, obtained by The Independent, included sections on the "pre-nuptial" stage; "the honeymoon: how to set up house and the first common projects" and "the irritation of living together".

Some of the "rules" for a successful coalition appear to mirror those of a working marriage. "Once the good atmosphere is gone, it is very difficult to get it back," said the report. The Liberal Democrats were also advised not to "show your wounds" when they don't get their own way, as it would only encourage their partners in government to rub salt in them.

One senior Liberal Democrat figure quipped yesterday: "We have entered the marriage stage". However, before David Cameron gets too excited or Conservative MPs too worried, the Liberal Democrats insist there are some limits to their relationship and that their union with the Tories will not last forever.

Lousewies van der Laan, former leader of the Dutch social liberal Democrats 66 (D66), who wrote the paper, described the ideal coalition partnership as a "mariage de raison" – marriage of convenience.

Her report, enthusiastically embraced by Mr Clegg, advised the his party "to go for it wholeheartedly and commit to being a stable coalition partner." Prophetically, she said: "Don't govern if you are afraid of losing popularity... There will be bad polls." The Liberal Democrats have seen their poll rating drop from the 23 per cent they won at the May election to around 15 per cent, with one survey putting them on 9 per cent.

One key lesson the party has taken on board is the need to redouble their efforts at "internal communications" to keep their own activists happy. But Ms van der Lann suggested Liberal Democrat ministers might not be the best people to decide upon strategy. "Don't take advice from people who get/have the jobs, personal interest clouds their judgement," she said.

Tomorrow Mr Clegg will make another attempt to reassure doubters in his own party when he spells out the Coalition's progressive credentials in the annual Hugo Young Memorial Lecture.

Although he still faces a bruising battle with his MPs, and activists, over his dramatic U-turn on university tuition fees, Mr Clegg has taken heart from private Liberal Democrat polling presented to the strategy meeting. It shows the public's attitude to coalitions has been transformed.

Shortly before the May election, 49 per cent of people thought a hung parliament that would force parties to work together would be a "bad thing" and only 34 per cent a "good thing". Today 56 per cent regard it as a "good thing" and 38 per cent a "bad thing."

One Clegg ally said: "Coalitions are supposed to be weak, vacillating, lowest common denominator administrations. But... critics of the Government think it is too strong, too decisive, too radical. You can think the deficit reduction programme is reckless, attack swingeing cuts to welfare payments and condemn the redrawing of constituency boundaries. But you cannot, credibly, attack the Government for being weak or indecisive."

He added: "One of the successes of the Coalition has been to decontaminate the idea of Coalition itself. Was it really only six months ago when the Conservatives were... warning of the horrors of a hung parliament?"

Extracts from the memo written by Lousewies van der Laan

Marriage of convenience with pre-nup

* Don't mortgage the marriage with negative party resolutions at the start.

* Achieve at least some of your programme; save the rest for the next coalition (or absolute power).

The honeymoon: how to set up house, and the first common projects

* Do let each other shine – grant each his moment of glory.

* Presentation is part of the equation, but mutual trust and atmosphere should be the determining factors.

* Don't hang out your dirty linen, and don't gloat when the others stumble.

* Don't begrudge the other-half's victories.

* Don't (publicly) ask for compensation when you don't get your own way.

The irritation of living together

* Keep the other party on board.

* Stay relaxed, even with bad opinion polls – it's all par for the course.

* Don't try to raise your profile at the expense of your partner – it will lead to exclusion from real decision-making.