British junior coalition partners brace for grassroots row

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Britain's Liberal Democrats gather Sunday for their first annual conference as a party in government, but leader Nick Clegg is braced for anger from members who believe he sold them out to win power.

Clegg gave his party its first ever shot at governing when he led them into a Conservative-led coalition in May, but many Lib Dems are deeply uneasy about the government's plans to slash public spending to reduce Britain's record deficit.

The party has seen its poll ratings plummet from 23 percent in the elections in May to as low as 12 percent, while a recent survey found that 22 percent of those who voted Lib Dem then were now backing the Labour party.

In a message to conference delegates, Clegg, who was made deputy prime minister, emphasised the benefits the Lib Dems have gained from the coalition, from a longed-for referendum on changing the voting system to reforms on civil liberties.

But he has also acknowledged the "nervousness" in his party about teaming up with the centre-right Conservatives and accepted he would face difficulties at the conference in Liverpool, northwest England.

"I love the fact that there are open debates and you betcha' there are people who are going to be there saying, 'Mr. Clegg, we think you got this wrong or that wrong'," he told a public meeting last month.

But he insisted the coalition was "working well" and rejected suggestions that members were deserting the party, saying that in fact 5,000 people had joined since they joined the coalition.

Interest in Britain's third-largest party has certainly increased since they became part of government after long years in opposition -- the number of lobbyists attending the conference has doubled since last year while 60 percent more journalists have signed up.

Many commentators are expecting fireworks, particularly over the coalition's plans to slash public spending.

Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy issued a warning about the cuts this week, telling the BBC that "we have to be terribly careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater" and urging "enlightened public investment".

Several Lib Dem lawmakers have also expressed their opposition to welfare cuts and two of them voted against an increase in sales tax in June, arguing that the measure hit the poorest people hardest.

"Nobody knows how many dissidents there really are in the party, and the former leader (Kennedy) is emphatically not -- or not yet -- setting himself up as a king across the water," the left-leaning Guardian wrote in an editorial.

But it added: "He seems more interested in speaking up for those strands of the liberal tradition which risk getting lost within a coalition led from the centre-right."

A more obvious thorn in Clegg's side is deputy party leader Simon Hughes, who has called for a veto for Lib Dem lawmakers on coalition policies they do not agree with and has refused to rule out a future partnership with Labour.

There are also a number of motions tabled at the conference which seem designed to embarass the leadership, including a call for research into a new tax on the rich -- something guaranteed to outrage their Tory partners.

Clegg has reportedly told his ministers they must "mingle" with delegates in Liverpool to ensure their concerns are heard, although he himself will be leaving conference two days early to address the United Nations in New York.

© 2010 AFP

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