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Lib Dems gather after court case

Liberal Democrats are gathering for their spring conference with the party wracked by more damaging controversy.

Senior figures are facing questions over when they knew of allegations that Chris Huhne's ex-wife had taken speeding points on his behalf.

Vicky Pryce was found guilty of perverting the course of justice on Thursday, and will be sentenced along with the ex-Cabinet minister at a future date.

In emails disclosed during the case, economist Pryce suggested she had told Business Secretary Vince Cable and his wife Rachel about the crime in January 2011 - well before the claims emerged in newspapers.

A spokeswoman for Mr Cable said: "Vince and Rachel have no recollection of the issue of points being raised with them over the course of dinner with Vicky Pryce on 28 January 2011."

Nick Clegg's wife Miriam was also forced to issue a statement after being dragged into the row.

"I have never ever been told by Vicky or anybody else about the traffic points story. I got to know about this when everybody else did," she said.

The Lib Dem leadership had been hoping to build on victory in the Eastleigh by-election at the gathering in Brighton this weekend.

The triumph came despite fears that allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the party's ex-chief executive Lord Rennard - which he has strongly denied - could harm the party's chances.

Another potential conference flashpoint was defused earlier this week when Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb announced that widely-criticised new regulations on competition in the NHS were being withdrawn.

However, there is still likely to be a showdown with activists over so-called secret courts legislation.

And the suggestions of a cover-up over the Huhne case will add to anxiety in the party amid consistently poor national poll ratings.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron has warned that the party was in a "critical state", and should not assume its survival is guaranteed.

But he told parliament's The House magazine that the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard were having little impact on the general public.

Mr Clegg will kick off the conference with a speech to a rally of activists.

Meanwhile, a senior police officer has said he would encourage anyone who knew of an acquaintance swapping driving points to report it to police.

Andy Trotter, the chief constable of British Transport Police, said: "Point-swapping is a real problem because what we have got out there are people who are seriously dangerous drivers who should not be driving, and that means they are still on the road and they shouldn't be on the road.

"I certainly think if people try to swap points, then other people should come forward and report them because we want those people off the road."

Asked whether someone should report allegations of point-swapping to police if they were told of them some years after the offence, Mr Trotter said: "I would expect people to pass on anything they think is sufficiently criminal that others should know about that. People will have to make their own judgment."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell acknowledged that he would have "much preferred" that the Huhne and Rennard scandals had not happened, but insisted that the party had reason to be "optimistic but not complacent" following victory in the Eastleigh by-election.

Sir Menzies said: "These are two things I would much have preferred not to have happened, but in Eastleigh the party turned out in strength because the party thought that this was an important occasion and an occasion to show that, like Mark Twain, rumours of our death are grossly exaggerated."

The former party leader said that it was notable that among the activists campaigning in Eastleigh were substantial numbers of young people, including "students, quite a few of whom, of course, have felt rather alienated because of our decision on tuition fees".

Mr Clegg's office said that it had checked with all party figures named in the Pryce emails and established that none of them were told about the speeding points before the story appeared in the press.

The party was not aware of any Lib Dem peers who knew about the points, a spokesman added.

The spokesman said: "Vicky Pryce did not talk to anyone in Nick Clegg's office about the speeding points. The first Nick knew of the Vicky Pryce speeding points allegations was from the media."

Arriving at the conference, Mr Clegg denied that the party was in crisis.

"No, not at all," he said. "We're in good spirits."

He insisted the Lib Dems would be celebrating their success in the Eastleigh by-election.

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