Wealthy pensioners should be stripped of universal benefits such as free bus passes and winter fuel payments before the next general election, Nick Clegg has suggested.
The deputy prime minister sparked confusion by indicating that he wanted to consider scrapping the handouts as part of the coalition's final spending review - even though it would breach the power-sharing agreement with the Tories.
Nick Clegg (L) believes rich pensioners shouldn't receive free bus passes
The Liberal Democrat position was muddled further when one of Mr Clegg's closest allies, David Laws, admitted he was sceptical about the idea because it would not raise much money, the Press Association reported.
The developments came on a difficult day for the leadership at the party's conference in Brighton.
In a series of interviews, Mr Clegg reiterated his determination that the rich will bear the brunt of an estimated £16 billion of extra cuts needed in 2015-16 to meet the coalition's deficit reduction targets.
Stressing the Lib Dems' commitment to "fairness", he again criticised David Cameron for blocking the introduction of a 'mansion tax' on properties worth more than £2 million.
And he suggested wealthy pensioners' handouts should also be cut to help balance the books - another move the prime minister is believed to oppose.
While initially saying he would stand by the pledge in the coalition agreement to maintain such universal benefits, Mr Clegg said: "My own view is that all parties will need to confront the simple irony, which is that we are giving free bus passes and TV licences and winter fuel payments to (entrepreneurs) Alan Sugar and Peter Stringfellow, while limiting housing benefit to families on much lower incomes.
"I do not think that is sustainable in the long term. I will take my choice as the Liberal Democrat party leader."
Pressed on whether he wanted curbs on universal benefits included in the coalition's last spending review - which comes into force a month before the 2015 general election - Mr Clegg replied: "As I say, 2015-16 is something we will need to decide upon during this parliament.
"I will advocate things, not only like that... As I've been very clear, I think one way or another we are going to have to bite the bullet."
Soon afterwards Cabinet Office minister Mr Laws appeared to disagree with his leader in an interview on BBC Radio 4's PM programme.
"We are not going to touch the universal benefits for pensioners in this Parliament. We have a coalition agreement that remains," he said.
"Although many people will think it is slightly odd that people who are incredibly rich are receiving things like the winter heating allowance, the truth is the overwhelming majority of pensioners are on middle or low incomes. There are very few millionaire pensioners.
"Indeed the small number of very high income pensioners also receive things like the basic state pension and nobody has every suggested that should be taken away from people.
"I don't think anyone is suggesting we should be sending out leaflets to pensioners asking them to declare their jewellery or their property... we have no intention whatsoever of doing anything like that.
"To be honest, I'm sceptical of this personally because the amount of money you would actually save by taking away some of these benefits from very rich pensioners is not huge because there are not many very, very, very rich pensioners."
The comments drew a sharp response from Apprentice star Lord Sugar, who posted on Twitter: "The twit Nick Clegg moaning about me having a bus pass. Idiot, I haven't got one."
But more controversy is likely to be generated by Mr Clegg's advocacy of a move that would technically breach the coalition agreement - less than a week after he made a grovelling apology for reneging on the Lib Dems' pre-election promise to oppose tuition fee hikes.
The deputy prime minister signalled this evening that in future his party would make clear that some of its manifesto pledges were "dependent on circumstances".
The increasing likelihood of coalition government meant parties could no longer guarantee implementing their manifesto in full, he told Channel 4 News.
Mr Clegg said: "If we are moving, as I believe we are, into a much more fluid political environment where the kind of old pendulum swing from the red team to the blue team is going to be much more difficult to predict...
"I think all parties will need to be more up front with the British people on what is kind of 'tablet of stone' stuff, and the others that will depend on circumstances."
He insisted the Lib Dems had been "ahead of the game" in 2010 because they put the four policies they would "die in a ditch" for on the front page - the pupil premium, £10,000 tax-free allowance, banking reform and political reform.
"We said that is the stuff we really really care about, the other stuff is dependent on circumstances," he added.
Mr Clegg also batted away speculation that dire opinion polls and unrest among activists could force him to step down as leader before the 2015 election.
"At the moment we are in the hardest phase of our test, our journey if you like," he said. "That is a journey that I intend to see through to the end... I am absolutely determined to lead this party through the election and beyond."
But the leadership suffered a heavy defeat in the conference floor, when activists voted for a motion calling for the coalition's controversial secret courts legislation to be dropped.
Members also lined up to attack chancellor George Osborne's proposal for regional pay, with one warning of a "race to the bottom" for wages of people in poorer areas.
Earlier, Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander continued the party's "fairness" theme of raising more revenue from the rich, launching a major crackdown on tax-dodgers.
Up to £3 billion could be brought in by targeting Britons who stash their money in Liechtenstein, Mr Alexander said as he set out plans to tackle the use of tax havens.
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more