Letter: Blair and Lib Dems

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The Independent Online
Sir: According to Donald Macintyre ("Why Blair will soon invite Ashdown into the Cabinet", 30 December), Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell would have subjected a post-election Blair offer of Cabinet posts to a test of "What's in it for the Liberal Democrats?" So why is it unreasonable to ask that question now? For that is the central question all party members will rightly want answered.

In our current electoral system the power of patronage for Cabinet places for individuals from minority parties lies with one party leader. But the not so distant future may bring proportional representation, when it would instead be up to the electorate to confer opportunities for coalitions between parties. That would mean formal negotiations on agreed programmes, not a blank cheque. And PR-based coalition politics would make merger unnecessary.

If Paddy Ashdown is offered a Cabinet post and accepts it he may make a significant statement about abandoning tribalism in British politics in favour of parties working together, but he will also be judged to have concluded that the Liberal Democrats have reached a high water mark of 46 Commons seats with nowhere else to go.

I look forward to some robust negotiations if such an offer is made. Whilst it is certainly not Paddy Ashdown's style to shun risks, he will expect those risks to be spread. Tony Blair will at least need to back PR in the expected referendum.

STEVE HITCHINS

Leader, Liberal Democrat Group, Islington Council

London N1

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