Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 13:01 UK

Doing deals and herding Lib Dems cats into coalition

By Huw Williams
BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme

The Scottish borders is a good area to talk about the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Conservatives.

Scottish Borders Council has been run that way since May 2007.

I took a totally unscientific survey of how that experience, and the recent general election campaign battling against the Tories, has coloured local activists' views of the negotiations now going on in London.


Euan Robson is a former MSP, and was a deputy minister in the Lib-Lab run Scottish Executive.

In his garden in Kelso, looking down onto the river Tweed, he told me that the coalition running the council works very effectively.

"It's been described in some quarters as a loveless marriage," he says, "but the council needed an administration. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats recognised that."

Former Lib Dem MSP Euan Robson
Ex MSP Euan Robson says any deal must guarantee stable government

"They've got a common programme. They're working on the programme. Yes, there are issues that they disagree about. But it is a demonstration that it can work. It can be coherent. And it can be stable."

He says he understands that some party activists will be dubious about going into coalition with David Cameron.

But, he says, there were exactly the same anxieties when they did a deal with Labour at Holyrood.

"But if you believe in proportional representation, if you keep telling people that politicians must work together and put the national interest first, then you have to accept that there will be coalitions. And you won't always get your own way."


Ian Jenkins is another former Member of the Scottish parliament.

He is dubious about doing a formal deal with the Conservatives.

He would rather sign what some have called a "Gentleman's Agreement".

Former Lib Dem MSP Ian Jenkins
Ian Jenkins would prefer to settle things case by case

That would mean Lib Dems at Westminster voting with a minority Conservative government whenever they can.

Doings things on a case-by-case basis is "quite an attractive idea", he told me.

He accepts that some people might doubt the long-term stability of such an arrangement.

"But my own feeling is that it may not be possible in any circumstances to go into formal coalition with people that you disagree with on many things. But you may be able to agree on individual items."

The Tories are "not a Liberal party", he insists.

"So they need to give us something, if they want us to deal with them in any real way. There needs to be real change, which takes us in the direction of fairness."


"I wouldn't touch the Tories with a 10ft barge pole."

Trudy Leitch speaks with all the anti-smoking fervour of some-one who has just kicked the habit.

"I was brought up in a Tory home. I was a Young Conservative, and I voted for them when I was younger. Now that I'm older and wiser I certainly would not with to be associated with them whatsoever."

Lib Dem activists Andrew and Trudy Leitch
Andrew and Trudy Leitch are against doing a deal

"I don't agree with their policies. And I don't agree with the way they'd run the country."

Her husband Andrew doesn't speak out quite as strongly. But even he talks about a coalition deal as the Lib Dems "selling their soul" and "doing a deal with the devil".

But, perhaps suprisingly, they agree that serious negotiations have to go ahead.

And they even grudgingly accept, when I press the point, that they'd have to trust Nick Clegg and his advisors if they ultimately recommend a deal.


On my journey through the Borders, then, I heard pragmatism, scepticism, and hostility.

The one voice I didn't hear was that of the Lib Dem activist who is positively keen on doing a deal to get into government with David Cameron.

Instead I got the sense that they're weighing up whether they want to be politically pure, or whether they want power.

Not power for its own sake, necessarily. But power so that they can start to implement the policies they think would make Scotland, make the UK, a better place.

In other words, are they going to sit on the sidelines? Or are they going to get up, and join the dance?


There is also some recognition that it may be equally difficult for the Conservatives.

One Lib Dem activist I spoke to told me "we may have a lot of people wearing home-knitted Fair Isle jumpers."

Getting them to sign up would be "like herding cats", he said.

But the Tories have got a lot of backwoodsmen, he added. And they will be just as resistant to making any compromises for the sake of a coalition.

Are you a Liberal Democrat or Conservative activist? What do you think the parties should do? Send your comments to the BBC news website. Click here to send an email. Please put FOR HUW WILLIAMS in the subject field.

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