By Tim Montgomerie
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One of the more remarkable things about the Lib/Con Coalition is the absence of disunity on the central project of deficit reduction. I would also have predicted that a Lib Dem backbencher might have defected by now. Despite real tensions on the government benches it hasn't happened. What is happening, however, is a big fall in Lib Dem membership as party activists give up on Nick Clegg and his cohabitation with the Conservatives.
One big sign came before the recent local elections when the Lib Dems struggled to field candidates in crucial wards. Now the Independent on Sunday is reporting that party membership has fallen by 20% since the formation of the Coalition:
- Membership is falling fastest in seats held by Government ministers – offering an interesting counterpoint to the general view that the Lib Dem vote is holding up better in seats that they currently hold.
- The minister who lost most members was Sarah Teather in Brent. 42% of her members fell away.
- Membership is also down particularly sharply in Scotland where the drop equals 26%.
- The Lib Dem student movement is half the size it was before Nick Clegg's spectacular U-turn on tuition fees.
The Left of the Liberal Democrats may be looking for an escape route via Labour. The Sunday Telegraph reports that a variety of Nick Clegg's colleagues are in regular contact with aides to Ed Miliband and the Labour leader himself. "One Labour source revealed Mr Cable and Mr Miliband spoke regularly by telephone". Other communicants include Ming Campbell, Tim Farron, Simon Hughes and serial trouble-maker Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott.
In recent times Labour has changed tactics, reducing attacks on the Liberal Democrats in the hope of forming a coalition with them in the very possible scenario of another hung parliament. This prospect should worry those Tories who are scheming for a second alliance with Clegg's party. I recently argued that there were powerful reasons why the Liberal Democrats would want to change horses after the next election.
PS Membership in Tory Associations is also down. At the end of the IoS report we learn this:
"At least 21 Tory associations gained members in the last year, though some ministers saw a fall, including Andrew Lansley, down 28 per cent, Philip Hammond, down 24 per cent and Theresa May, whose constituency lost 20 per cent. The party said it had launched initiatives to "attract new members and reconnect with lapsed members"."
The Boris Johnson campaign had to pay for election leaflets to be delivered in parts of London where there is a sitting Tory MP because of the weakness of local associations.