Top Liberal Democrat MPs back Tory talks

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Liberal Democrat MPs today endorsed leader Nick Clegg's decision to enter talks with the Conservatives over possible co-operation in forming a new government.

Mr Clegg addressed his senior frontbench team and a meeting of the party's 57 MPs in Westminster and received the "full and complete" support of both groups for his strategy, said Lib Dem negotiator David Laws.

The Liberal Democrat and Conservative negotiation teams are to meet again tomorrow morning at the Cabinet Office to continue talks which began last night after it became clear that no party had secured an outright majority in Thursday's General Election.

Tory sources indicated that no conclusion was expected before Monday at the earliest, while Mr Laws refused to put an "artificial timescale" on the process.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown - who remains Prime Minister until the impasse caused by the inconclusive election result is resolved - remains ready to talk to the Lib Dems about a possible alliance if discussions with Tories run into the sand.

There were apparent signs today that Mr Clegg may be keeping his options open in negotiations with Tories on the crucial Lib Dem priority of voting reform.

The Lib Dems were warned by a senior Tory today not to "hold the country to ransom" with demands for proportional representation, which are thought likely to be a deal-breaker if Mr Clegg makes them an absolute condition of any co-operation.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "It would seem to me very strange in an election that was dominated by the economy... if the government of the UK was held to ransom over an issue that the voters did not see as their priority."

Mr Clegg has previously described a fairer voting system as an an "absolute pre-condition" for the renewal of Britain's politics. But as he arrived for today's meetings, he said his negotiating strategy would be guided by four Lib Dem objectives including "fundamental political reform of our political system".

And addressing around 1,000 demonstrators calling for PR outside the Smith Square meeting, he said he was driven by the goal of "reforming politics", carefully avoiding any mention of the voting system.

Mr Clegg was cheered as he emerged to address protesters, including musician Billy Bragg, by megaphone, though he was also faced with calls of "Don't sell out, Nick!"

"Take it from me, reforming politics is one of the reasons I went into politics," he told the crowd.

"I've campaigned for a better, more open, more transparent, new politics, every single day of this General Election campaign. I genuinely believe it is in the national interest."

Mr Brown has offered immediate legislation on a referendum on electoral reform in return for a deal with Lib Dems to keep him in Downing Street. And senior minister Peter Hain has made clear that this could go beyond the Alternative Vote (AV) system previously favoured by Labour.

Asked whether Lib Dems would insist on PR as part of any deal with Tories, Mr Laws said only that it was "a matter which would have to be discussed".

Before making any move which might impact on the Lib Dems' political independence, Mr Clegg must negotiate a "triple lock" which requires him to secure the support of the party's MPs and federal executive, and may involve a special conference or a postal ballot of members.

But sources indicated that there was no vote on his plans at today's meetings, which instead saw him briefing MPs on the positions outlined to him by Mr Brown and David Cameron in brief phone conversations last night. They denied suggestions that Mr Cameron had offered the posts of home secretary, chief secretary to the Treasury and transport secretary to Lib Dems in a coalition cabinet.

BBC reports of an angry exchange with Mr Brown in which the PM launched a tirade of threats against Mr Clegg were categorically denied by both Lib Dems and Labour today.

Speaking outside Lib Dem headquarters in Cowley Street, Mr Laws characterised today's meetings as "very, very positive and constructive" and said both frontbenchers and MPs had "endorsed in full and completely the strategy laid out by Nick Clegg over the last 24 hours".

He added: "We are determined to put the national interest before party advantage and to play our part in delivering the stable and good government the people of this country are entitled to expect...

"We understand the pressures that there are to make a decision on these matters as soon as possible and we are keen for an early conclusion to these issues. But people will also understand that we are keen to make sure that we make the right long-term decisions for the people of this country."

Mr Clegg joined Mr Cameron and Mr Brown in taking part in a commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall of the 65th anniversary of VE Day. The ceremony had been expected to be the first public engagement of the new Prime Minister after Thursday's election.

And he later attended a meeting of his party's ruling federal executive, where he was applauded by representatives of the party's elected members, constituency activists and officials.

Mr Cameron held talks with his negotiating team at Conservative HQ this morning, but returned home after his visit to the Cenotaph. And Mr Brown is understood to be spending the rest of the weekend in his constituency in Scotland.

Bassetlaw MP John Mann became the first Labour figure since the election to call on Mr Brown to stand down as leader, arguing that he could not secure a credible pact with the Liberal Democrats.

Labour was dismissive of a call from Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond for a "progressive alternative" alliance involving the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

And there were the first stirrings of dissent in the Tory ranks, with former chairman Lord Tebbit publishing an article calling for a ballot of the membership on any compact with Liberal Democrats.

The UK National Defence Association, which campaigns for more resources for the armed services, urged Tories involved in negotiations to reject any Lib Dem demands to reduce defence spending or compromise on national security and counter-terrorism.

UKNDA spokesman Andy Smith said: "David Cameron has given assurances that, under a Conservative government, funding for the Armed Forces would be safeguarded in the current year. In addition, his party is committed to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent, and in his speech yesterday in London he reiterated his intention to keep our defences strong.

"This could be put seriously at risk if concessions are made to the Liberal Democrats' dangerously misguided defence policy. To cut our defences any further, as proposed by the Liberal Democrats, would place our nation in very grave danger."

Mr Clegg said he had had a "very good meeting" with the Lib Dem federal executive.

And as the meeting broke up, his chief of staff, Danny Alexander, said: "It was very much in the spirit of the other meetings we've had today. Just as with the parliamentary party meeting and the shadow cabinet, they very much endorsed the position which has been taken by Nick Clegg."

Neither man commented on remarks by federal executive member Lord Razzall that the Lib Dems were listening to what Labour had to say.

In an email message to supporters, Mr Cameron set out his approach in negotiations with the Lib Dems.

"I want - and I believe the country expects - our two parties to work out how we can deliver strong and stable government to tackle Britain's big and urgent problems," he wrote.

Mr Cameron repeated his commitment to "stand firm" on the issues of Europe, immigration and defence but said there were areas of "common ground" with the Lib Dems such as education reform, low-carbon growth, political reform, decentralisation, civil liberties and ID cards.

And he added: "There are also areas where I believe we in the Conservative Party can give ground, both in the national interest and in the interests of forging an open and trusting partnership.

"For example, we want to work with the Liberal Democrats to see how we can afford to reduce taxes on the lowest paid. Of course, we hope to see a similarly constructive approach from the Liberal Democrats - not least on the urgent issue of tackling the deficit."

Mr Cameron said: "Inevitably, these negotiations will involve compromise. But that's what working together in the national interest means. I hope we can sort things out as quickly as possible, for the good of the country. But we won't rush into any agreement.

"We've got to make sure that anything that results really is the best possible outcome for Britain - that it really is in the national interest."