'Unimpressed' Steel joins the attack on formal co-operation with Government

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Two of the most senior Liberal Democrats, including Lord Steel of Aikwood, the former Liberal Party leader, havepublicly criticised formal cooperation with Tony Blair and the Government.

Two of the most senior Liberal Democrats, including Lord Steel of Aikwood, the former Liberal Party leader, havepublicly criticised formal cooperation with Tony Blair and the Government.

Lord Steel has expressed doubts about the joint committee founded by Mr Blair to draw up policies with the Liberal Democrats. The committee was formed when Paddy Ashdown led the Liberal Democrats but has continued to meet under his successor as party leader, Charles Kennedy.

The former Liberal leader says he was restrained by loyalty from expressing his concerns earlier about the Joint Consultative Committee, which is composed of ministers and frontbench Liberal Democrat MPs.

His misgivings echo criticisms of the policy by Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, in his autobiography Fourth among Equals. The Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords admits he was "unimpressed" when Mr Ashdown announced he was setting up a committee with Mr Blair "because there was no point in such formal arrangements unless the government was prepared to be significantly influenced by them".

Lord Rodgers, who has been Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords since 1998, says that his initial doubts about the wisdom of establishing a formal mechanism for co-operating with Labour were borne out by its outcome.

"The experience of the next two years confirmed my view," he said. "I can think of only one measurable outcome from the committee: the reference to 'proportionate creations' [proportionate to the votes cast for other parties] of new Liberal Democrat life peers."

The joint committee has produced papers on constitutional reform and foreign affairs, including the role of the United Nations.

Lord Steel, in a magazine review of Lord Rodgers' autobiography, said he agreed with the assessment of the committee in the book. "With most of Bill's judgements I concur (including his reservations about the current joint cabinet committee which my ex-leader loyalty prevented me from expressing!)" he wrote in the autumn edition of Journalof Liberal Democrat History.

Lord Steel has refrained from criticising his successor's policies. The remarks, echoed privately by several Liberal Democrat MPs, will be seen by some as a call to review the policy of "constructive opposition" towards the Government.

The two-pronged attack, as Mr Kennedy seeks to consolidate his leadership at the party conference in Bournemouth, will come as a blow to party aides who want to draw attention away from their relationship with Labour and focus on their own policies.

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