Divisions within the Liberal Democrats over their coalition with Conservatives have been laid bare as former leader Charles Kennedy revealed he refused to vote for the deal.
On the eve of a special Lib Dem conference in Birmingham at which Nick Clegg is expected to face hostility from some activists over the agreement, Mr Kennedy revealed that he abstained in the MPs’ vote on Tuesday which cleared the way for the coalition.
His comments came as polls suggested that significant numbers of Lib Dem voters had switched to Labour following the formation of the coalition government.
Around a third of voters who backed Lib Dems in last week’s election feel that Mr Clegg has sold out the party’s principles and should have forged an alliance with Labour instead, according to a ComRes survey for the Sunday Mirror and Independent on Sunday. The ComRes poll and another survey by ICM for the Sunday Telegraph each suggested that Lib Dem support was down three points since the election on 21%, with Labour the main beneficiaries.
Writing in The Observer, Mr Kennedy said he voiced his concerns over the deal before abstaining at Tuesday’s late-night meeting, which took place as Gordon Brown was handing over to David Cameron as Prime Minister. Other former leaders Lord Ashdown and Sir Menzies Campbell are understood to have voted in favour.
Mr Kennedy said: “Paddy Ashdown described last week’s events as ‘a rather unexpected moment’. Certainly they drive a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured ‘realignment of the centre-left’ to which leaders in the Liberal tradition – this one included – have all subscribed since the Jo Grimond era.
“It is hardly surprising that, for some of us at least, our political compass currently feels confused. And that really encapsulates the reasons why I felt personally unable to vote for this outcome when it was presented to Liberal Democrat parliamentarians.”
Mr Kennedy said he had been keen to explore the possibility of a “progressive coalition” with Labour and made clear he would have preferred to allow Conservatives to form a minority administration while Lib Dems remained in opposition.
Despite his predecessor’s abstention, Mr Clegg obtained the 75% majority among both MPs and the Lib Dem federal executive which he needed to avoid activating a “triple lock” process which would have required the deal to be approved by a special conference and perhaps even a postal ballot of members.
The Deputy Prime Minister has acknowledged that the coalition deal had caused “both surprise and with it some offence” to some in his party, but insisted he had no other responsible option. He may face an angry reaction from some activists at Sunday’s conference, which has no power to overturn the agreement but could cause embarrassment to the Lib Dem leadership by amending the motion to endorse it.