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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 September, 2003, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
Lib Dem's ministerial ambition

By Ben Davies
BBC News Online political staff

For a man who has spent 16 years in a state of permanent opposition, Lib Dem treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor retains an enthusiasm for politics of almost boyish proportions.

Far from being down-hearted, the amiable Truro and St Austell MP predicts that not only will he get to be a minister before Tory opposite number Michael Howard, but that there will be a Lib Dem prime minister in his political lifetime.

Mind you he is only 40.

His theory is that when Labour falls from power it will fall not because the Conservatives have won an election but because no party at all will have an overall majority.

Matthew Taylor
Matthew Taylor has his eye on government
Of course that is precisely what the Lib Dems hoped for in 1992 and 1997 and it did not happen then.

But the situation now for the third party is rather different.

With a much larger block of MPs at Westminster than ever before, Taylor believes it is only a matter of time before they have a breakthrough in the House of Commons.

He says all this before the result of Brent East by-election revealed a startling win for the Lib Dems in a safe Labour seat boosting their MPs to 54 in number.

By-election delight

When we speak again on the first day of the Lib Dem conference he is clearly delighted.

"The Tories cannot even begin to mount a challenge and the Liberal Democrats are clearly chasing disillusioned Conservative and Labour voters," he told BBC News Online.

There are a small minority of people who want low tax, crap public services, terrible education, poor public health, but good if you can afford to go private
Matthew Taylor
He argues that what the Tories have to offer is not attractive to most British voters because, as he sees it, they pose a threat to public services.

"There are a small minority of people who want low tax, crap public services, terrible education, poor public health, but good if you can afford to go private.

"I don't think that's where the majority of British people are and that's why I think the Conservative Party is doing so badly in the polls."

As far as his time in Parliament is concerned he describes it as an "investment worth making" and he says he hopes he retains the same enthusiasm for politics as he brought to Westminster as a newly-elected 24-year-old MP.

"We're sharing in government in Scotland, we are the decisive power in the European Parliament, we're the decisive power in the House of Lords, we are powerful in local government.

"Where we've yet to break through is the House of Commons, and there are many, many more of us than there used to be and we're on the way."

Working with Tories?

Clearly if sharing power is the way forward there has to be a chance that party leader Charles Kennedy is considering working with Labour. But what about with the current Conservative Party?

"It is not about Conservatives that we have an objection, there are people in the Conservative Party that share many of our values just as there are in the Labour Party.

"We would like them to join us in an ideal world. But it would take a huge change at the top of the Conservative Party to see that happening."

A noticeable feature of today's House of Commons is that Lib Dem spokesmen come in for a fair amount of barracking from both Tory and Labour MPs.

It is a trend that has become even more noticeable in recent months particularly during debates on Iraq.


"It is pretty undemocratic but the truth is that the Conservative and Labour Parties rely on sharing power," says Taylor.

"They pretend to hate each other, but they have been very content with a political system in which each side gets a turn every so often.

"So of course those parties fear us and the more successful we get - and that's exactly what's happening now - the more they will pour abuse on us.

"We are growing in success and if the price of success is to get a little abuse from the Conservative and Labour Parties frankly we can live with it."

Taylor's speech is one of the key events at conference as it his job to attack the record of Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Brown's ambition?

Given Lib Dem enthusiasm for the euro, the government's decision not to call a referendum for the moment will be a major issue.

Taylor thinks the decision had already been well and truly kicked into the long grass even before the Swedes voted against joining earlier this month.

He warns the UK will pay a grave economic price if it keeps the pound but he understands the lack of enthusiasm felt by many voters for abandoning what is familiar.

"It's true that all economies go up and down and at a time when the German economy in particular is in difficulties it's very hard to make the case in the short run to people to join the euro, given their caution about it.

"But the long-run case remains and is best illustrated by the fact that since the euro was created and we failed to join it, the overseas investment into the UK used to be 28% of all inward investment and it's now just 8%."

He says that the decision not to call a referendum is not so much about economics as about one man's political ambition.

"I think that overwhelmingly the issue is dominated by Gordon Brown and his determination to be prime minister.

"He's not prepared to have a euro referendum this side of being prime minister, because he's afraid that if he lost it, it would put an end not just to his chancellorship but to his hopes of getting the top job."

The BBC's Carole Walker in Brighton
"Kennedy said the Lib Dems were at their best when going forward under their own colours"

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