Page last updated at 16:52 GMT, Sunday, 16 May 2010 17:52 UK

Nick Clegg questioned by Lib Dems over Tory deal

Nick Clegg: "We're trying to put party differences aside"

Lib Dem activists have "overwhelmingly" backed leader Nick Clegg's coalition deal with the Conservatives.

They voted to support a motion at a special conference in Birmingham, a party source told the BBC.

There was speculation Mr Clegg would face hostility after ex-leader Charles Kennedy said he could not bring himself to back the deal when MPs voted on it.

The conference had no power to overturn the coalition agreement, but could have amended the motion to endorse it.

'Big moment'

Speaking ahead of the event, which was held behind closed doors, Mr Clegg said: "We are a very democratic party and of course the creation of the coalition government was a real big moment in British politics.

"It's absolutely right that we are now going to debate it together."

Mr Clegg had already received the backing of his MPs and the party's federal executive committee for the coalition, which will see his party sharing power with the Conservatives at Westminster, after the Tories failed to gain enough votes at the general election to win an outright majority.

That meant the Lib Dem leader did not have to formally seek the approval of party members - but he will have been anxious to gain their backing amid reports of grassroots discontent and opinion polls suggesting voters were switching their support to Labour.

The new deputy prime minister is reported to have received a standing ovation from Lib Dem activists at Birmingham's NEC. Party sources said no more than a dozen of the 2,000 delegates opposed the deal in a show of hands.

Mr Clegg told the Guardian newspaper on Saturday he knew the deal had caused "much surprise and some offence".

A handful of non-party members, including Labour MP John Mann, staged a protest against the Lib-Dem Conservative coalition outside the conference centre.

But some party members arriving for the event said they believed extent of Lib Dem anger at the Tory deal had been exaggerated.

Nigel Howells, a Liberal Democrat councillor from Cardiff, said: "I think (the deal with the Conservatives) was a sensible thing to do."

Cameron backing

Others said although they would have preferred a power-sharing deal with Labour, they believed it would not have been a realistic option.

Conservative leader and new prime minister David Cameron has promised the Lib Dem leader would be part of the "inner core" of his government.

Speaking on BBC One's Andrew Marr show, he said the coalition was about more than grabbing power.

But former Lib Dem leader Mr Kennedy has said he could not bring himself to back Mr Clegg in a vote of Lib Dem MPs on Tuesday and feared the Lib Dems would be swallowed up by the Tories, wrecking the chance of a left wing "progressive alliance".

Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, who was part of the Lib Dem team which negotiated the coalition after the Tories failed to win a majority in last Thursday's general election, told BBC One's Politics Show a Labour-Lib Dem coalition had been impossible because the Labour negotiating team "were falling apart".

Two members, Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis, "seemed genuinely to want a deal" but the team, which included Ed Miliband, who has since launched a Labour leadership bid, and Ed Balls, who is expected to follow suit, were not "able to speak with one voice," said Mr Alexander.

He said that "on the key issues of the economy, of education and even on some of the political reform stuff, we simply were not able to see what they could really offer".

He added: "I think there are quite a number of people in the Labour party, not just in the negotiating team, but outside too, who clearly wanted to be in opposition and that meant that, it just seemed to us that, at the end of those discussions, there was absolutely no way that this was an arrangement that could work."



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