Nick Clegg will next week urge restive Liberal Democrat MPs to hold their nerve and show discipline when faced with public anger over the swingeing cuts being driven through by the coalition government.
The Deputy Prime Minister is holding an “away day” for all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs in an attempt to rally morale among backbenchers uneasy about the austerity package facing the country.
Mr Clegg is also promising to give his MPs access to Whitehall departments to counter accusations they are being left out of the loop over key government decisions.
The Liberal Democrat leader’s allies are relieved over the party’s unity in the coalition’s early stages, with only two MPs defying the whip last week to vote against the Budget.
But they are resigned to a public backlash against the party over the next two years as the voters feel the pain of spending cuts and tax rises.
An opinion poll for the Independent last week detected a significant fall in support for the Liberal Democrats, a trend which Clegg allies fear will continue. They are resigned to the party suffering a mauling in next year’s council elections.
Mr Clegg is making early preparations to head off the inevitable disquiet among his own MPs, many of whom regard themselves as being on the centre-Left.
They have all been called to next Thursday’s away day at the Local Government Association headquarters in Westminster, where they will be joined by Liberal Democrat peers, council leaders and party officials.
Mr Clegg’s aim to reassure them the party is achieving concrete results from the power-sharing deal, citing the commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform next year, the increase in income tax thresholds and the creation of a judge-led inquiry into accusations the security forces colluded with torture.
He will urge his MPs to sell the achievements during the summer recess to activists ahead of their annual conference in Liverpool in September.
The Deputy Prime Minister will insist that the party is retaining its separate identity in the coalition and ask for suggestions on how the Liberal Democrats can continue to carve out a distinctive political niche.
Party activists involved in coalition arrangements in councils such as Birmingham will spell out how they operated in practice.
Mr Clegg will also deliver a tough message that the party needs to maintain its resolve as the cuts bite. He will argue that to pull out of the coalition mid-way through its five-year term would spell political disaster for the Liberal Democrats.
“We will be toast as a party if we collapse the coalition half-way through. We have to see this through,” one ally said.
In a further move to involve Liberal Democrat MPs, backbenchers who have been appointed to party “policy committees” are to be promised access to the Whitehall departments they are scrutinising. They include prominent MPs on the Left of the party, such as Simon Hughes and Tim Farron.
Mr Clegg is also holding “sandwich lunches” with MPs to set out policy and regularly addressing meetings of backbenchers.
Mr Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said the mood among his colleagues was “reasonably positive”.
He said: “It’s been a very difficult cultural and mental shift to go through. It’s hard, but we belong to a party that’s been in opposition for 65 years. It will take a while to adjust.”
Julian Astle, the director of the Centreforum liberal think-tank, said: “Quite a lot of MPs do not seem to be enjoying government very much. But there is a big difference between not enjoying it and wanting to be out of it.”
A poll of activists by the website Liberal Democrat Voice found broad backing for most of the measures in the Budget. But in a sign of possible trouble ahead for Mr Clegg, 42 per cent said they opposed the decision to raise the rate of VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent next January.
Those Liberal Democrat worries
* What will happen if the country rejects electoral reform in the referendum planned for 5 May? Where are we left then?
* The impact of spending cuts: will the worst-off be heaviest hit by the squeeze in the public sector?
* How can rises in VAT – regarded by many as a regressive tax – be justified?
* Is our party being used as political cover by David Cameron for even more swingeing cuts than the Tories would have contemplated?
* As junior members of the coalition, how do we prevent our identity from becoming submerged?
* How do we develop a distinctive policy platform for the 2012 general election?
* How do we prevent Left-leaning voters from returning to the Labour fold?
* What is the party's exit strategy from the coalition?
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