Is this the end of Lab-Lib Dem pact?
"If it means moving the party to a position where we are not immediately linked to another party, or parties, that is a position I want to be in. I want us to be seen as the Liberal Democrats, with our own policies, our own manifesto, that focuses on winning more votes at the next election." - Nicol Stephen
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NICOL Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, paved the way for an end to Lab-Lib Dem rule in Scotland last night when he insisted he would not compromise on either his anti- nuclear approach or his commitment to scrapping the council tax.
Mr Stephen told The Scotsman the Liberal Democrats would go into next year's Holyrood elections with demands for a local income tax and a ban on all new nuclear power stations at the heart of their manifesto.
But with Labour taking a different view in both areas, there is now so much to divide the parties that it will be difficult for them to find sufficient common ground to form a third coalition.
Mr Stephen effectively conceded as much when he insisted he was different from his predecessor, Jim Wallace, and did not want the Lib Dems under his leadership to be associated too strongly with any other party.
This was a clear attempt to distance himself from Mr Wallace's approach, which has led to the creation of two Labour-Lib Dem coalitions, one in 1999 and one in 2003.
The chances of another Lab-Lib Dem coalition are also being impeded from Labour's side, with four back-benchers declaring publicly yesterday that Labour should think seriously about trying to govern Scotland on its own after next year's election.
Elaine Murray, Paul Martin, Scott Barrie and Duncan McNeil told BBC Scotland that it might be time for Labour to ditch the Liberal Democrats.
However, speaking on the eve of his party's Scottish conference, which starts today in Aviemore, Mr Stephen said: "If it means moving the party to a position where we are not immediately linked to another party, or parties, that is a position I want to be in. I want us to be seen as the Liberal Democrats, with our own policies, our own manifesto, that focuses on winning more votes at the next election."
One of these policies is opposition to new nuclear power stations in Scotland, an approach that is already dividing the coalition parties - despite a compromise which has been designed to keep the Executive together until next year.
The Scottish Labour Party took a decision at its conference last month to support a new generation of nuclear power stations, and Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is moving the UK government towards the endorsement of new nuclear stations as well.
Despite this, Mr Stephen was adamant that the Lib Dems would insist on using the Executive's planning laws to block any plans for new nuclear stations in Scotland.
The Executive has an official policy of not making any decisions on nuclear power until the issue of waste disposal has been dealt with, and the committee on radioactive waste management will report later this year.
However, Mr Stephen said he did not expect the issue of waste to be dealt with adequately by the committee, effectively undermining the Executive's compromise deal. He said: "If the committee's final recommendations are as we expect [for deep storage at existing sites], that will not solve the problem of waste.
"We think it would be completely inappropriate to proceed with a whole new generation of nuclear power stations when all we will be doing is building up problems for future generations."
He added: "We would make it clear [in the 2007 election campaign] that we are absolutely determined to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to prevent a new generation of nuclear power stations being built here."
The Scottish Lib Dems want the council tax to be abolished and replaced with a local income tax, another policy stance that puts them on a collision course with Labour.
Mr Stephen said: "I am absolutely committed to local income tax for councils replacing the council tax. We will fight very hard for that issue - this is one of the core issues we will be fighting the campaign on."
He refused to get into any discussions about potential coalition partners after the 2007 elections, arguing that he wanted to focus exclusively on getting as much support as possible for his party. But he has made it clear that he is adopting a different approach from his predecessor.
Although he will not use the term "non-negotiable", it is now clear that the questions of nuclear power and the scrapping of the council tax are two core issues on which the Lib Dems would insist on getting agreement in any coalition deal.
On these two issues, at least, Mr Stephen shares much more common ground with the SNP than he does with Labour.
While their leader refuses to talk about any potential coalition deals, most Liberal Democrat members now concede privately that the prospect of a Lib Dem-SNP, or even a Lib Dem-SNP-Green coalition, is closer now - with Mr Stephen at the helm - than it has ever been.
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