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Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce
"Unless Labour remain honest on having a referendum on PR then the fundamental background is compromised"
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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 08:04 GMT
Kennedy threatens to end Lib-Lab ties

Charles Kennedy: "Promises on PR needed"

The Liberal Democrats are preparing for their first formal meeting with the prime minister since Charles Kennedy became leader.

He has already hinted co-operation could end unless progress is made.

The joint cabinet committee talks will cover freedom of information, House of Lords reform and the Europe Union.

But it is the issue of proportional representation where the Lib Dem leader might lose patience with the government.

While the government promised a referendum on PR for Westminster before the 1997 election, many pundits believe Tony Blair has lost interest.

Mr Kennedy said at the meeting on Monday the prime minister must at least guarantee this would still occur.

Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair were close
"If Labour are not able to reconfirm, as it were, a commitment to a referendum on proportional representation for Westminster I certainly don't see any future prospect for further constitutional co-operation between our parties," he said.

"Even if I didn't take that view - and personally I do as well as politically - I don't think I'd be allowed to take another view by the membership of the Liberal Democrats, they would say the curtain comes down at that point.

"I don't think that there's room for manoeuvre there - it's appeared in one manifesto, there therefore would be no excuse for excluding it or excising it from a future manifesto."

Mr Kennedy's decision to take home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes to the meeting also led observers to suggest he had gone cool on Lib-Lab ties.

Mr Hughes, who was the runner-up in the summer leadership contest to replace Paddy Ashdown, is more hostile to co-operation.

But the Lib Dem leader insisted he had been invited simply because some of the subjects on the table for discussion fell under his brief.

While Mr Ashdown had taken the same senior party members to all meetings of the joint cabinet committee, he would take those most relevant, Mr Kennedy said.

Leaks from Mr Ashdown's diaries recently suggested the prime minister had considered inviting two Lib Dem MPs to sit in the cabinet permanently.

But this did not happen. Mr Kennedy ruled out for the moment extending co-operation to other areas, such as welfare reform, "not least when the shopping list is itself enormous".

The other Lib Dems at the talks will be constitutional affairs spokesman Robert Maclennan, foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell and the party's peers' leader Lord Rodgers.

The chairman of the parliamentary party, Malcolm Bruce, defended the process ahead of the meeting.

"I think the point is that there are some important issues on which we feel we can influence the government and on which they may be willing to be influenced and those are on the agenda today," he said.

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