Simon Hughes has confirmed that the Liberal Democrats will fight against the Tories at the next election.
Ending speculation that the two coalition parties would enter into a non-aggression pact or field joint candidates, the deputy leader of the party confirmed: "We will fight the next election in every seat." Insisting the alliance with the Conservatives was "temporary", he said:
It's a business arrangement. It's not a marriage and it's for one term. And at the end of that term . . . you fight the election on your own. We will do it, surprise surprise, because we want to win more seats, we want to have more influence, and we want to be in government ideally on our own.
He pointed out that an electoral pact is not allowed by the party's constitution, which pledges to field candidates in every seat in the UK.
Hughes has established himself as the bulldog defender of the Lib Dems' unique identity. Early this month, he expressed consternation at David Cameron's proposals for ending lifetime tenancy in council houses:
The Prime Minister is entitled to float any idea he likes but we have to be clear it is not a Liberal Democrat policy, it is not a coalition policy, it is not in the election manifesto of either party, it was not in the coalition agreement.
After the Budget was announced in June, he pointed out that the Lib Dems could "hypothetically" still request changes:
Where we could improve fairness and make for a fairer Britain, then we will come forward with amendments to do that, because that's what makes the difference, as we will in the spending review which will follow in the months ahead.
There are several issues here. First is the difficulty that fielding separate candidates will pose for the Lib Dems. Polls show that the party's support has slumped to just 16 per cent, and it will be very easy for Labour to tell voters that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories. They are likely to take a hammering at the next election, particularly given their limited funds.
Second is Hughes's position within the party. He has set himself up as the defender of the party's left, which is particularly significant, given his role as deputy leader. Could he be positioning himself to become a leader in the event of a party split?