Lib Dem rules could paralyse government

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FEARS have been raised that complex procedures in the Liberal Democrats' rules could leave Britain without a government for weeks in the case of a hung parliament.

• Nick Clegg attacked Gordon Brown's centralised control. Picture: PA

With the prospect of no clear winner looking the odds-on favourite, attention has focused on what would happen if Nick Clegg holds the balance of power.

A "triple lock" system means Mr Clegg would have to ask permission from both his MPs and the party's executive committee to go into a coalition agreement.

Concerns are already being raised privately of a civil war within the party over whether to back the Conservatives or Labour, leading to weeks of indecision after 6 May.

This could realise the worst fears of the financial sector over a hung parliament with the lack of a government leading to a fall in the pound and a crash in share values. A survey of 150 leading financiers this week showed that 74 per cent thought a hung parliament would be bad for the economy.

The uncertainty of the outcome of the election was underlined by the volatility of the polls, with three last night suggesting very different outcomes.

A ComRes poll put the Tories nine points ahead on 35 per cent with the Lib Dems and Labour both on 26 per cent. But even this healthy lead would leave David Cameron 27 seats short of a majority, according to analysts.

A YouGov poll put the Lib Dems three points ahead on 34 per cent, with the Tories on 31 and Labour third on 26.

Then a Populus poll put the Conservatives on 32, Lib Dems on 31 and Labour on 28.

Ladbrokes has shortened the odds of Mr Clegg being prime minister from 250/1 to 10/1.

The "triple lock" system, which was agreed 12 years ago when the Lib Dems were concerned that the then leader, Paddy Ashdown, was getting too friendly with Tony Blair, means that coalition decisions are out of Mr Clegg's hands. If his MPs or the party's executive committee fail to give him 75 per cent backing, he would require a special conference.

But if delegates at the conference then failed to give him two-thirds support, Mr Clegg would be forced to hold a postal ballot of all members.

Already divisions have become evident in the Lib Dems.

Mr Clegg has made it clear that he thinks the party with the biggest mandate would have the right to be asked first whether it wanted to govern, although he refuses to say whether he means seats or votes.

But this is likely to mean that he would have to seek to make a deal with Mr Cameron and the Conservatives first.

However, according to recent polls, 46 per cent of his supporters prefer a deal with Labour, compared with 31 per cent who would go in with the Tories.

Some are swayed ideologically, while others look at their main opponents in different parts of the country.

And in the spring conference before the election, Mr Clegg faced a challenge from many of the membership who wanted him to rule out a deal with the Tories.

Many yesterday balked at an apparent lurch to the Right yesterday by Mr Cameron in a major speech attacking the benefit culture and announcing that the Conservatives would force people to go back to work.

Some in the party also believe that Chris Huhne, who narrowly lost to Mr Clegg in the leadership contest, would lead an anti-Tory campaign.

Mr Huhne, a left-leaning member of the party who used to belong to Labour, is fighting a Conservative challenge in his Eastleigh seat on the south coast.

The concerns over the uncertainty caused by a hung parliament were reflected in a poll carried out in Scotland by Ipsos/Mori, which showed 56 per cent thought it would be bad for the country.

With a rise in inflation yesterday, Conservative Treasury spokesman Phil Hammond said: "A hung parliament could lead to an even weaker pound and even higher inflation, with the risk of higher interest rates to tackle it. Only the Conservatives can restore confidence in our economy and guarantee the recovery."

Ian Murray, Labour's candidate for Edinburgh South, added: "Most people want a single party to have a majority of seats, because the last thing any of us need is uncertainty."

However, a spokesman for the Lib Dems said that the concerns were being exaggerated.

"First, it assumes there would be a coalition, which the recent experience in Scotland shows might not be the case," he said. "Second, we believe we could get this process done very quickly."

&#149 Mr Clegg faced questions yesterday about costs of calls abroad that he was told to pay back, as well as his cushions and gardening bills in his expenses claims.

He said: "I used the allowance to keep a home in Sheffield. I think, unlike almost everybody else, I have said very clearly and very openly that my approach to this is that's not my home. It's a home on loan to me from the taxpayer and that when it's sold every single penny of value gained is returned to the taxpayer."

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