Nick Clegg is facing a growing grassroots revolt as Liberal Democrat councillors quit the party in protest at the decision to form the Coalition with the Conservatives.
Eight councillors in four areas have already resigned and the party's high command is braced for more resignations as the full impact of the public spending cuts becomes clearer. Town halls face a severe budget squeeze despite the Government's pledge to devolve power.
The rebellion suggests that Mr Clegg could face a rough ride when his party holds its annual conference in Liverpool in two weeks. Four councillors in Halton, Cheshire, who have quit the party and now sit as independents, said the Liberal Democrats had become "nodding dogs for the Tories". One of them, Peter Blackmore, said he "can't look people in the eye" because of the spending cuts.
In Liverpool, Councillor Ian Jobling has defected to Labour, accusing the Liberal Democrats of "double standards and hypocrisy". He said: "Our manifesto in May clearly stated that there would be no cuts before 2011-12 because it would cost jobs."
Two Exeter councillors who have defected to Labour, Rob Hannaford and his civil partner Adrian Hannaford, said they were unhappy that the Liberal Democrats had joined the Coalition. "We have spent a lot of time working for the Lib Dems and never thought we would be supporting a Tory Prime Minister," they said. "We are both aware the deficit has to be cut but would prefer it to be done in a more steady way over a longer period."
In Manchester, Councillor Ken Dobson has left the party and will sit as an independent. "I don't feel I can defend national policy which harms the people of this city," he said yesterday.
Other Liberal Democrats may also be on the brink of leaving the party. In Barnsley, councillors have sent out a leaflet asking their constituents whether they should go it alone, join Labour or stick with the Liberal Democrats. "We are ashamed, as you are, of what the national Lib Dems have done in joining the Conservatives," it says.
Ron Beadle, a Gateshead councillor who stood in Newcastle North at the general election, said it would be "naive" not to anticipate further defections. "I don't see the party splitting, though it would be naive not to anticipate defections during this parliament," he said.
He added it was up to councillors and activists to hold Liberal Democrat ministers to account. "That's what I intend to do and I am urging colleagues who are unhappy with particular policies and decisions to look at the wider picture and judge the Government on its record overall against these objectives. It is therefore wrong to rush to judgement, even for those of us who would look to Labour as a more natural partner," he said.
Richard Kemp, a Liverpool councillor who is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government, predicted losses at next May's council elections – the Coalition Government's first electoral test. He did not believe there would be defections of "any significance", saying colleagues were more likely to retire than join Labour or the Tories. But he said he would tell Mr Clegg that "things don't look particularly good for those who are defending our seats".
Labour claims that many of the 30,000 people who have joined it since the May election have previously been Liberal Democrat members or voters. Labour has about 170,000 members.
A Labour source said: "It's clear a lot of Lib Dems are disturbed by the Coalition's agenda. From what we're hearing across the country there could be more of this to come."
Last night Liberal Democrat officials played down the resignations, saying the party had 3,900 councillors. Although about 600 members have left since the general election, the party says another 4,500 people have joined. The Liberal Democrats now have about 65,000 members.
Mr Clegg's allies insist that most grassroots members still support the decision to enter the Coalition, which was approved overwhelmingly at a special party conference in Birmingham in May as well as by the party's MPs and federal executive.
A survey of 600 members by the Liberal Voice website this week showed that 84 per cent backed the decision to form the Coalition. However, it found that support for the Coalition has fallen from 57 per cent in July to 45 per cent.
Four out of five of those polled believed that the biggest immediate danger for the Liberal Democrats was failing to communicate how the party's policies were making a difference to the Government.
Stephen Tall, the co-editor of the website, said the findings were "a warning sign" for the party leadership. "The message from Lib Dem members seems clear. They support the Coalition, but want to see Nick Clegg and his fellow ministers trumpeting those achievements which are the result of the Lib Dems being in Government," he said.
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