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Lib Dems 'will maintain identity'

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has indicated his determination that the Liberal Democrats will maintain a separate identity from their Conservative coalition partners.

Amid ongoing speculation over whether the parties will agree an electoral pact at the next general election, Mr Clegg said he did not believe voters wanted him to become "best mates" with Prime Minister David Cameron.

But at the start of the most testing week for his Liberal Democrats, who face a divisive Commons vote on tuition fees, he insisted he had no regrets over going into government with Mr Cameron's Tories.

His comments came as shadow chancellor Alan Johnson said that Labour should reach out to progressives within the Liberal Democrats, with a view to possible co-operation after future elections. Mr Johnson indicated that he had the backing of Labour leader Ed Miliband in calling on the party to "nurture links" with Greens and Lib Dems, rather than turn its back on Mr Clegg's party for working with Tories.

Mr Clegg told the Independent on Sunday: "I don't think what the country wants is for us to become best mates." But asked if he had any regrets about his decision to go into coalition, he replied: "No. None at all. I'm absolutely convinced that almost any other course of action would have been a disaster for the country.

"If there's one thing I'm not going to apologise for as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Government, after 60 or 70 years of being out of government, it's that you just cannot avoid but deal with the world the way it is."

In an interview with the Fabian Review, Mr Johnson said he expected future elections to produce results where "you cannot guarantee a big majority government". And he made clear he believes Labour cannot afford to burn its bridges with the Lib Dems in these circumstances.

"I am absolutely open, and so is Ed, to forging a centre-left coalition in the future," he said. "We'd like to win elections outright, but we've got a lot in common with many Lib Dems and others on the left, like the Greens, and we should nurture those links."

Mr Johnson, who is one of Labour's biggest enthusiasts for voting reform, was decidedly lukewarm about the referendum on the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections taking place on May 5 next year. A supporter of the more proportional AV-plus system, Mr Johnson said Mr Clegg had been "remarkably weak" in not ensuring a proportional option was on the ballot paper for the referendum.

Asked if he would be disappointed if the referendum is lost, he responded: "I won't be heartbroken. If it goes through, I'll support AV, but my heart won't be in it in the same way as if it was the proper thing."


From Belfast Telegraph