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Malcolm Bruce
"I'm not particularly surprised."
 real 28k

Labour MP Gordon Prentice
"We don't need the Liberal Democrats."
 real 28k

Monday, 29 November, 1999, 16:14 GMT
Parties' unease over cabinet seats
The minutes are from a private dinner attended by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown in 1997

Liberal Democrats and Labour are attempting to play down the publication of personal papers belonging to Paddy Ashdown suggesting the prime minister offered Lib Dems two places in the cabinet.

The extracts from Mr Ashdown's diary published by a Sunday newspaper report that the subject was discussed by the former Lib Dem leader and Tony Blair at a private dinner in October 1997.

In an interview earlier this month, Mr Ashdown hinted that he had discussed the prospect of a coalition, nicknamed the Full Monty, with Mr Blair in the autumn of 1997.

Menzies Campbell: Possible member of the cabinet
But he has said he had not given his permission for the details from his diaries to be published.

An aide told the BBC an investigation into the publication of the material would begin as soon as Mr Ashdown returned from Kosovo on Wednesday.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that the prime minister had indicated to Mr Ashdown there were "two easy people" who could be moved to make room for incoming Liberal Democrats.

Although the "easy people" were not identified, many Labour MPs believe the prime minister was referring to Gavin Strang and David Clark, who were later removed from government in a reshuffle.

Downing Street has described the accounts as "wishful thinking", although they have not been flatly denied.

The reports at the weekend also allege that the prime minister asked Mr Ashdown to send the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Malcolm Bruce "back to his family" following criticism of the government's economic policies.

Mr Bruce said on Monday he had never been asked to stem his criticism although he was not shocked at the revelation.

He said: "I'm not particularly surprised because there were at least a couple of occasions in prime minister's question at about that time when the prime minister made some personally snide remarks about me, which I think indicated I was getting under his skin.

"I take the view that I was given the job of being the party's Treasury spokesman in order to be effective and I have no apologies for that.

Malcolm Bruce: Suggestions he could stem criticism
"I was never asked to back off and I wouldn't have done so."

But Mr Bruce said the "naming names" in an actual coalition was "a little bit of a surprise".

He continued: "I take the view that I was being effective, that discussion proves that.

"I would have been clearly shocked if I'd found I'd been asked to change my approach or removed for those grounds and that would have been ground for complaint.

"But given that it didn't come to anything, yes, [I am] a little disappointed but not entirely surprised."

But Mr Bruce said he believed the project would never have got through the cabinet or received the backing of the Lib Dems.

Left-wing Labour MP Gordon Prentice, a long standing opponent of closer ties with Lib Dems, repeated that view, saying he did not believe the prime minister could get rid of two Labour cabinet ministers and replace them with Liberal Democrats.

"There would be a nuclear reaction within the parliamentary labour party and the party outside," said Mr Prentice.

He added: "The simple fact is that we don't need the Liberal Democrats.

"If the Liberal Democrats are so enamoured with this Labour government they can tear up their party cards and join us, but they don't because they're a separate political party."

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16 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Blair considered coalition after 1997

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