The Liberal Democrats will not prop up another Tory government should David Cameron insist on pushing through £12 billion in welfare cuts, Nick Clegg said on Monday. However, the deputy prime minister said he would consider partnership with either main party after the election as a means of ensuring a "centre-round" administration.
Tory plans to decimate benefits amount to a "red line" for Clegg should the election deliver a hung parliament, with the Lib Dems proposing £3 billion welfare cuts by 2017/18 as part of a £27 billion deficit-reduction package that also includes £5 billion in tax hikes, £7 billion raised through cracking down on tax dodgers and £12 billion in public spending reductions.
Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg takes part in a question and answer session with apprentices and their employers at Mid-Kent College
Speaking in an Leader interview for BBC1, Clegg said he "wouldn't accept" the Tory cuts over the same timescale, which he confirmed amounted to a "red line" in post-election negotiations, Clegg said: "In exactly the same way that I could never countenance recommending to the Liberal Democrats that we enter into coalition with a Labour Party that isn't serious about balancing the books.”
He added: "Equally I would not recommend to the Lib Dems that we go into coalition with the Conservatives if they insist on a plan which is willfully a remarkable departure from what we've done in this coalition, where we've asked those with the broadest shoulders to pay more through the tax system to balance the books.
"They're asking for £12 billion over two years. We've made shy of £20 billion over five - over half a decade. They want to ask the poorest to make those additional sacrifices at the same time as saying to the richest that they don't need to pay an extra penny through the tax system to balance the books. That is downright unfair."
Asked what he would require from a deal with the Conservatives, he said: "That you ask the wealthiest to pay more of a contribution. You shouldn't let them off completely scot-free."
Following rumblings within the party hierarchy that the Lib Dems might prefer a break from coalition, Clegg was asked whether he is ready to forge another deal.
He replied: "If the British people tell us - like last time - that the only way of governing this country sensibly from the liberal centre-ground is a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition, just as much as if they tell us the only way to do it is a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, of course the Liberal Democrats will look to see whether that's something we can and should do - whether we will, and whether we can do it in a way which is consistent with our values and our policies."
Asked whether the decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010 had proved to be worth the slump in Lib Dem popularity which followed, Clegg said: "Yes, of course it has and any Liberal Democrat will tell you that. We took the decision as a democratic party."
On the Tories, Clegg said Cameron's party were "lashing out" in the General Election campaign. "What I have learnt about the Conservatives... is when they think they're about to lose their grip on something that they like, usually power, they can lash out," he said. "They're doing it in this election campaign because it's dawning on them they're not going to win this election campaign."