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Simon Hughes portrays Coalition as a loveless marriage, and says LibDems must reassert equi-distance between Tories and Labour

By Tim Montgomerie

Screen shot 2010-08-15 at 17.18.49 Mr Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' Deputy Leader, is hardly off the media these days defining the limits to Lib/Con co-operation.

Today he has ruled out a non-aggression pact between his party and the Conservatives at the next election.

He certainly has his party's constitution on his side. He notes that the LibDem constitution requires the party to fight every seat and 50% of members would have to vote to change that. Polling by Populus (for Lord Ashcroft) has, however, suggested that LibDem MPs could face wipeout in Tory/LD marginals if they don't have a non-aggression pact with the Conservatives in these seats. It's easily possible that 50% of members could vote to ensure the survival of their party in southern England but the voting process might prove, in itself, to be too divisive.

Conservative Chairman Sayeeda Warsi has refused to rule out electoral co-operation and a recent ConHome poll of Tory members found that 35% were wholly opposed to a limited non-aggression pact in Lib/Con marginals. 65% were supportive or open to the possibility.

For me, however, the most interesting statement by Simon Hughes in his interview with Sky News came with these words:

“We should have no preference at the next election between the Tories and Labour and other parties."

I can't believe that Nick Clegg agrees. Unless the LibDems leave the Coalition before the end of the fixed-term parliament they will go into the election having to defend the government's record. The Huhne-Warsi press conference earlier this week was a first attempt by the Coalition leadership to forge a joint anti-Labour strategy.

But, as Hughes made clear to the BBC, he sees the Coalition as a loveless business arrangement rather than a marriage. Towards the end of the parliament this suggests he will be arguing for a LibDem manifesto that is radically distinctive.

Hughes may want equi-distance between his and the other two main parties but the Labour leader will believe he has the easier argument in saying that Nick Clegg will keep the Tories in power if people vote for his candidates.

> In addition, watch Simon Hughes welcome Alan Milburn's appointment to advise Coalition on social mobility