David Miliband could have kept Labour in government if he had made clear that he would back a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if he replaced Gordon Brown as leader, Lord Ashdown has revealed.
In an extraordinary twist to the saga of how the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition deal was struck, the former Lib Dem leader accused Mr Miliband of a "failure of action" by not making clear a Lib-Lab deal was a strong prospect.
The accusation that Mr Miliband, the frontrunner in the race to succeed Gordon Brown, could have denied the Conservatives power was rejected by sources close to the former foreign secretary last night.
But Lord Ashdown's comments reflected the intense anger felt in some Lib Dem quarters that Nick Clegg and his MPs are sitting around David Cameron's cabinet table.
Lord Ashdown, in an interview with his local newspaper, the Western Morning News, yesterday, also blamed the "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals" of the Labour Party – John Prescott, David Blunkett, John Reid and Jack Straw – of killing off any chances of a "progressive alliance" before the deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg was struck.
Of the five days of intense cross-party talks last week, Lord Ashdown said he had indirectly contacted David Miliband to ask him to come out and back a Lib-Lab deal. He added: "I think there was a failure of action by those who could have staked out very clearly this where they wanted to go. By this, I mean David Miliband.
"There was a point, and I will say to you that not directly but indirectly I know that this point was made to him: that he ought to come out clearly and say if he was leader of the Labour Party he would back this.
"But I fear greatly that he decided that for reasons of a leadership election, he wouldn't. I think that's true of others, too."
Lord Ashdown added: "There were the Neanderthal people who have always been tribalist in their approach, Prescott, Straw, Blunkett, Reid ... the old knuckle-draggers stopped it happening for tribal reasons."
Amid the fallout from the coalition, Ed Miliband confirmed he was standing against his brother in the Labour leadership contest yesterday.
Nick Clegg was bracing himself for a backlash by party activists at a special party conference in Birmingham today which will debate the terms of the historic coalition agreement.
Members are planning to table amendments to the agreement on tuition fees, while there are expected to be demands that Lib Dem ministers resist the coalition's Government's tough stance on Iran, spelt out by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in talks with Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday.
While Lib Dem ministers and MPs are broadly supportive of the deal, the coalition has been met with less enthusiasm among the party's councillors and activists. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday today showed that backing for the Lib Dems has dropped since election day – underlining fears that the deal with the Tories has cost them support.
The Tories are up one point on 38 per cent, Labour are up four points to 34 per cent and the Lib Dems are down three points on 21 per cent.
This would have kept the Tories the largest party with 291 seats, but Labour, on 286, and the Lib Dems, on 45, would have been able to form an overall majority if they had struck a deal.
Crucially, only 76 per cent of people who said they voted Lib Dem last week would vote the same way if another election were held tomorrow.
And 34 per cent of Lib Dem voters think Mr Clegg and his team have "sold out on their principles" by going into coalition with the Tories.
Nich Starling, a Lib Dem councillor on Broadland District Council in Norfolk, said the coalition deal had made some party workers "feel like we have been turned into liars and fools".
In a thinly veiled swipe at Mr Clegg, he told Radio 4's Today programme: "It's easy to compromise on your principles if you don't have any. Some of the things which we are going to be introducing appear to me to be very unprincipled, given we were opposing them just 10 days ago."
The backlash among Tories also continued. Tory MP Christopher Chope warned that the party risked falling into a "Lib Dem honey trap" by agreeing to fixed-term parliaments and introducing a new 55 per cent threshold on votes for dissolution.Reuse content