Kennedy 'in talks with Labour whips about defecting'

Nigel Morris,Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 21 August 2010 00:00

Labour whips have held talks with Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, to try to persuade him to defect, opposition sources said last night.

They are targeting a handful of Liberal Democrat MPs disillusioned over the party's decision to form a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Mr Kennedy, the most prominent sceptic about the power-sharing agreement, was said to have informally discussed his worries with opposition whips. One Labour frontbencher said: "Charlie Kennedy is in a very angry frame of mind."

The Liberal Democrats' high command denied that he was thinking of defecting. A party spokeswoman said: "I can categorically say it is not true – and that is from the horse's mouth."

Meanwhile, Mr Clegg has risked antagonising Liberal Democrat activists by insisting that he would not walk away from the Coalition if the country rejects electoral reform.

A referendum on introducing the alternative vote (AV) for parliamentary elections was among the largest concessions Mr Clegg gained from David Cameron in negotiations over their power-sharing deal.

Scrapping the first-past-the-post system has been an article of faith for his party for decades, even if AV falls far short of the full proportional representation favoured by Liberal Democrats.

However, in an interview to be broadcast tomorrow, the Deputy Prime Minister said that winning next year's referendum would not a make-or-break moment for Liberal Democrat participation in the Coalition.

His comments, in which he also suggested that his party was suffering an "identity crisis", came after polls suggested a collapse in support for electoral reform in line with the slump in popularity suffered by the Liberal Democrats.

He told BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour: "If [the electorate] say no, they have said no ... heaven knows we have been talking about this long enough." He said: "The Liberal Democrats aren't a sort of glorified form of the Electoral Reform Society."

Mr Clegg said that changing the voting system would be an element in renewing politics, but added: "I wouldn't have stood for the leadership of the Lib Dems if I thought the only sole purpose in life was to change the electoral system."

Dismissing accusations that his party was being damaged by its link with the Tories, he said: "If we weren't in a coalition now I don't think people would take any notice of the Liberal Democrats. If we were in a coalition with Labour arguably our identity crisis would be even worse."

According to opinion polls, the public backed altering the electoral system by a majority of almost two to one. Now voters appear to be evenly split on the merits of the move.

Mark Pack, co-editor of the Liberal Democrat Voice website, said: "Party members will understand the underlying point Nick Clegg was making – that this isn't a single-issue coalition. However, I suspect many will be disappointed at quite how keenly he talked down the importance of electoral reform in some parts of the interview."

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