Liberal Democrats Pose Deal That Stirs British Politics

BRITISH Prime Minister John Major's Conservatives may have to fight in the next general election against opposition parties prepared to build a united front in office.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the centrist Liberal Democratic Party, has indicated that he wants his followers ready to strike a post-election deal with the Labour Party. If the Liberal Democrats increase their strength, they could decide who forms the government and so deny the Conservatives power, which they have held for the past 15 years.

Mr. Ashdown, in what political analysts see as an audacious move at the Liberal Democrats' annual conference in Brighton last week, suggested that the way to future success lies in making ``common cause'' with Labour.

Tony Blair, Labour's newly elected leader, responded guardedly to Ashdown's proposal, but Mr. Blair's advisers privately concede their party may need Liberal support to end single-party rule. To win the election, to be held in about two years, Labour needs a massive swing against the government.

If it fails to win outright, the Liberal Democrats, who hope to improve on their 23 seats in the House of Commons could give Blair the support to command a majority and be chosen by the queen as prime minister.

Ashdown is now offering this prospect to Labour, which is set to hold its own annual conference next week. The Liberal Democrat leader indicated that a deal with the Conservatives was not on his agenda.

His party, he said, was ``the fulcrum of trust'' that would provide ``a turning point of change'' in British politics.

Ashdown is breaking new ground in urging his followers to be hostile to cooperation with the Conservatives. In the past, his party has campaigned as a political movement ``equidistant'' from the two larger parties, and ready in principle to support either. Last week several representatives spoke out against changing the party's alignment. But Ashdown has told close advisers that Blair's election makes it necessary for the Liberal Democrats to consider cooperating with Labour rather than offering themselves as an alternative government in their own right.

Labour under Blair has opened up a 30-point opinion poll lead over Major's Conservatives. But none of Blair's advisers believes the party can hold such a lead as general elections approach. The more Labour's lead shrinks, the greater the likelihood that Blair will need Liberal Democrat support to force Major out.

Ashdown is taking a considerable gamble in offering to cooperate with Labour. If his party does badly at the general election, its political credibility will diminish, and with it Ashdown's reputation as a canny political operator.

Ashdown has signaled to Blair that the price of Liberal Democrat cooperation would be agreement by Labour to move toward a system of proportional representation in national politics. Such a change would probably increase Liberal Democrat representation in the House of Commons, but it would probably also decrease the number of seats held by Labour.

Andrew Marr, a leading political analyst, says that if the Liberal Democrats get into power with Labour, ``we are in for changes to our democracy of huge scope and importance.''

Mr. Marr says a ``Lib-Lab government'' would evoke ``extreme Conservative opposition'' and ``provoke a period of turmoil.''

Precedent exists for Labour, working with another party, to hold a House of Commons majority. In the mid-1970s, Labour and the then-Liberal Party forged a ``Lib-Lab pact'' that kept the Conservatives from achieving office until the 1979 general election.

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