THE Liberal Democrats are in meltdown across the region as they pay the price for coalition with the Conservatives, according to research.

Nick Clegg’s party has plunged to only four per cent in a series of opinion polls in the North-East, having boasted the support of 24 per cent of voters at the General Election in May.

The rating is by far the lowest recorded for the Lib Dems anywhere in the country – the next lowest is ten per cent in Greater London – and below the most calamitous score in any national poll, which is eight per cent.

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Ipsos Mori also found that the 20 per cent decline in Lib Dem popularity in the North- East since the “Cleggmania”

of May was steeper than anywhere else in the country. The polls were carried out before Thursday’s controversial vote to treble student fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, but are certain to have recorded the widespread anger in the run-up to it.

Every Lib Dem MP vowed, back in May, to vote against any rise in fees – and actively courted the support of students and their parents – triggering claims of betrayal.

Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, said: “It is traditional for Lib Dems to drop in the polls outside of election campaigns. This is usually down to a lack of media exposure.

“But now they’re in Government and making headlines – albeit negative ones – and their support has still fallen.

“Especially interesting is the drop to only four per cent in the North-East.”

But the study was ridiculed by Ian Swales, Lib Dem MP for Redcar, who said: “We are not tearing ourselves to bits.

This will blow over.”

Mr Swales – one of 21 Lib Dems who defied Mr Clegg by voting against higher fees on Thursday – added: “This opinion poll appears to have been taken when the Lib Dems are facing the one issue, tuition fees, that is most difficult for us. I have no fears that it is our real position.

“The party on the ground is still healthy, the people I meet locally are happy and residents are happy.”

Asked if the Lib Dems were badly damaged by the fees controversy, Mr Swales replied: “Not really. The public will judge us over a longer period and we are achieving an enormous amount in the coalition.”

Carol Woods, the defeated Liberal Democrat candidate for Durham City, said the polls were “very disappointing”, but what was most disappointing was that the vote to raise tuition fees had gone through.

If elected, she would have been “fairly and squarely against” raising fees – in line with Lib Dem policy, she said.

Ms Woods refused to comment on Mr Clegg’s future, but said: “We will have to see how things pan out. We need to see if we can sort this out.”

Ipsos Mori’s results reflected the average of several polls carried out between June and November.

In total, 5,029 people were interviewed across the country.

Yesterday, Mr Clegg said the fees revolt was “no surprise”, given the different views within his party, and added: “The party has discussed this in a calm and respectful manner, which I think will now allow us to move forward without rancour.”