One leading Liberal Democrat even suggested that the political closeness of Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, and Mr Blair could lead to the parties coming together. Alex Carlile, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said: "It is quite clear from the political atmosphere in the House of Commons, the atmosphere between the Blair office ... and the Ashdown office, that there are matters upon which there is a consensus and there is, above all, a willingness to develop that consensus if necessary.
"I think that the parties ... are bringing ideas together and that really has in the end an inevitable consequence for the parties slowly coming together."
Speaking on BBC's On the Record, Mr Carlile added that his party should accept the offer of seats in a Labour-led government. But the embarrassing question of party mergers and alliances immediately exposed the deep divisions in the Liberal Democrat ranks.
An ICM "State of the Nation" poll reveals today that, in the event of a Parliament with no overall Labour majority, 35 per cent of voters would want Labour to offer the Liberal Democrats Cabinet seats in a minority government. A further 24 per cent would want Mr Blair to agree to a programme of legislation with the Liberal Democrats, in return for their backing, according to the poll commissioned by the Rowntree Reform Trust and the Daily Mirror.
As the party assembled in Brighton,Mr Ashdown tried to avoid questions about the consequences of a hung Parliament. He told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost that it was "statistically unlikely", and what people really wanted to know was what the parties stood for.
But he then went out of his way to align himself with Mr Blair, whom he admired for "the courage in which he has sought to bring his party up to date".
Mr Ashdown seemed embarrassed, if not annoyed, by the clear diversion from the conference's policy-punching agenda caused by speculation about a hung Parliament. "What matters is the policy, not the people," he said. "I have never been interested in who sits where in Parliament." But he did confirm his known view on consensus, saying: "If there are sensible areas where we can work together in order to put into practice what we believe, and in order to deliver what this country needs, we shall work together with them."
Alan Beith, the party's deputy leader, dismissed Mr Carlile's views, saying he was standing down at the next election. "I don't see the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats coming together," he said. "We are distinct parties, with a distinct identity in policy and beliefs."
Underlining the antipathy to Labour in parts of the party, Sir David Steel, the former Liberal leader who helped sustain James Callaghan's government during the Seventies, told a conference rally last night that Labour represented "No Danger", not "New Danger".
But, Sir David echoed the results of the poll when he said: "If there is to be - as I fervently hope - a change of government, I believe the quality of that government will depend crucially on the size, influence and power of the Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament."
The point of friction is over the degree of co-operation and alliance. Backing Mr Beith's repudiation of Mr Carlile, Malcolm Bruce,Treasury spokesman, said: "We're not going to be seduced by a simple offer of some kind of share in office as a result of an accidental freak of an out-turn at a general election.
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