Tory chairman floats idea of coalition with Lib Dems

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He told The Independent: "You look round the country and you see a number of councils where Conservatives are in alliance with Lib Dems, Birmingham, for example. There's no great drama about that."

Asked whether there could be a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, he replied: "There's no reason why that should be out of the question If you end up with a hung parliament, there is either a minority government, which is unwieldy, or a coalition. You deal with what the electorate gives you."

Mr Maude insisted, however, that a hung parliament was a "remote" possibility, saying: "We are clearly aiming to win the next election outright. Everything we are doing is directed at that."

However, he is the first senior Tory to leave the door open to a post-election alliance with the Liberal Democrats, some of whom have raised the prospect of such a coalition.

Charles Kennedy, who will try to reassert his authority in a crucial speech at the Blackpool conference today, has warned his party that such speculation would harm its chances at the election. Mr Maude issued a last-minute appeal to wavering Tory MPs and party activists to support Michael Howard's proposal to give MPs, rather than party members, the final say in leadership elections. More than half of those entitled to vote have already voted and the result will be announced next Tuesday.

The Tory chairman said he would be "very, very surprised indeed" if the party did not get "well over 50 per cent" support among both MPs and party grassroots representatives, but conceded that it might fall short of the required 66 per cent among both groups.

If the 66 per cent hurdle is not cleared, the election to choose Mr Howard's successor will be held under the current system, which gives party members the decisive role. But Mr Maude said the result would then be delayed until December or January instead of being known in early November.

"It's a very powerful reason for us to get on with it," he said. "In preparing ourselves to be a credible, appealing alternative government, the loss of another couple of months would be bad news."

Mr Maude dismissed as "fantasy" reports that Mr Howard would quit immediately if his proposed rule change was rejected next Tuesday, leaving Michael Ancram, his deputy, to take over as a caretaker leader. He stressed that the rules were reviewed because both MPs and party activists pressed for a change. "If the MPs don't support it, having twice voted for it, it would make them look pretty ridiculous," he said. "People would think, 'these guys can't make their mind up about that, what else can we trust them to do?'''

He held out the prospect of American-style primary contests in future leadership contests under which registered Tory supporters would have a say as well as members. "You want the leader of the party to be elected with the widest possible level of support," he said.

The Tory chairman admitted that it was not "ideal" for the vote on the rules to coincide with the leadership contest. He said Mr Howard had intended to resolve the system to be used before the leadership election began but candidates had started to campaign.

He warned: "I think all the leadership contenders know that if they were to indulge in personal attacks on other contenders it would do the party harm but would also be totally counterproductive. They would find that their support dwindled."

In a speech last night, Ken Clarke said that the Tories must convince voters they can be trusted with public services. Many people wrongly suspected the Tories wanted to privatise services "then cut taxes for our rich friends ", he said.

"We must win public trust by making people understand that we are dedicated to higher standards for all," he said.

"With my personal commitment to public services and my experience in leading them, I believe that I am particularly well equipped for the task."

* Six members of David Davis's shadow home affairs team have endorsed his stand for the Tory leadership. The six, headed by the shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve, said Mr Davis could provide "the kind of leadership the Conservative Party needs in the years ahead".