Nick Clegg has said he would work with either party in any future coalition subsequent to the 2015 general election. Speaking on Tuesday at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, the beleaguered leader acknowledged that his party had no chance of winning the vote, but said a second coalition would represent a better prospect for Britain, allowing the Lib Dems to acts as a restraint on whichever party - Labour or Conservative - came into power.
Describing himself as "chipper" about Lib Dem prospects - despite polls putting them at 10% or below of public support - Clegg said he would "obviously" remain party leader up to and beyond the May 2015 poll. The Lib Dem leader slapped down Business Secretary Vince Cable for suggesting that the coalition Government might collapse before its five-year term is over, declaring: "It won't happen. We will see this through."
Clegg also brushed off suggestions that Cable had been disloyal by going off-message on the issue, as well as sending mixed signals on economic policy. Hailing Cable as "one of the very best secretaries of state in our government", he told Channel 4 News: "I don't think it's fair on Vince to read into his comments some mischievous intent."
Clegg declined to criticise the Business Secretary's vituperative assault on his Tory coalition partners as "callous" and "nasty", telling ITV News: "We are not the thought police, this is the Liberal Democrats. People can use the words they want. I'm not going to start doctoring people's adjectives and adverbs."
The Lib Dem leader was unusually frank as he ruled out the prospect of Lib Dem victory at the next general election - something which previous leaders have shied away from doing. "To be honest, I don't think I'm going to be Prime Minister after the next general election, so the Liberal Democrats being in government next time is, I think, only really going to happen if we are in coalition," he told Channel 4 News.
However, he did not seem disappointed by the situation, adding: "I certainly believe that coalition government is better than single-party government. "I think coalition politics where we act as a restraint on the unfair instincts of the Conservatives and the economically ruinous instincts of the Labour Party is a better government than allowing either the Labour or Conservative parties to take turns in messing things up as they have done in the past."
Asked whether he would be willing to serve as DPM in an Ed Miliband administration, Clegg told the BBC: "If the British people say that the most legitimate outcome of the next general election would be a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, of course I would be prepared to play my part in that."
But he declined to say whether he thought the Labour leader would make a good Prime Minister, saying: "I don't know, it hasn't happened yet. I don't think you should judge people until they've been able to prove themselves. "I personally think that the Labour Party and Ed Miliband himself have assumed that the general election is somehow going to be delivered to them on a plate simply by criticising the coalition and the difficult decisions we've had to make... I've an old-fashioned view that in politics you do best if you set out some positive ideas about what you would do. I think there's a bit of a blank at the moment in what the Labour Party thinks."
Clegg denied that he was assuming he had the right to stay Deputy Prime Minister "forever and a day", but rejected suggestions that his removal as leader might be a price the Lib Dems would have to pay to go into coalition with Labour. "It's not for them to hand-pick which individual Liberal Democrats they work with, in the same way as it's not for me to hand-pick the Labour team," he told 5 News.
Decisions on the formation of a new coalition in the case of a hung Parliament should not depend on the personal relationship between leaders, he said. And he said that the Lib Dems had shown over the past three years that coalitions can withstand political differences between the parties.
"You can be in coalition and work together in the national interest, but also be open about your differences," he said. "Of course there are areas where strongly I disagree with what I think is a slightly tin-eared approach from the Conservatives towards basic fairness in society. But that doesn't mean you can't sit round a table with people you don't agree with in a coalition and do big good things for the country.
"The economic recovery, in my view, would not now be gaining pace as it finally is - we've got a long way to go of course - if it wasn't that the Liberal Democrats had held our nerve in the coalition." Clegg said that "one of the battleground debates" at the election will be the question of what proportion of the Government's deficit reduction plans should be funded by tax increases or public spending cuts. Chancellor George Osborne has already indicated that he believes no more tax increases will be needed, while Clegg wants new levies, including a £2 billion-a-year "mansion tax" on expensive properties to take some of the burden.
He denied that Lib Dems were planning new taxes on those earning £50,000 or more, as inadvertently suggested in a leaked document on Monday. But he declined to rule out any other tax rises after 2015, saying: "Tax systems are very complex. Of course we will look at it. We will set out our stall before the next general election."
In an upbeat assessment of his prospects, Clegg told ITV News: "I'm certainly, obviously going to lead the party up to, through and beyond the next general election and I want to see us back in government. I think we are now so well-placed to say to the British people come May 2015, if you want a party which anchors the Government in the liberal centre ground, that is fair on society but does the right things to get the economy going, we are your only real option.
"I am actually chipper and proud of the fact that we've done that because it's been a pretty bruising journey for Liberal Democrats to go from perpetual opposition into the tough choices of government and we have lost short-term popularity. I probably am chipper because intuitively in my gut I think we will recover and we will do better than many of our critics pretend that we will."