IoS Exclusive Interview

A chance for change that comes only once in a generation

As the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, tries to turn the election into a two-horse race with the Conservatives, he tells voters that this is a rare opportunity to scrap Britain's unfair electoral system

Nick Clegg makes a final appeal to voters today to seize the "once-in-a-generation chance" for real change to Britain's unbalanced voting system by backing the Liberal Democrats on Thursday.

As polls this weekend showed that David Cameron is beginning to stretch his lead and could achieve an outright victory, after weeks of surveys pointing to a hung parliament, the Lib Dem leader insists a majority Tory government would be run by a "clique" of people with "vested interests" that are set against electoral reform.

Mr Clegg, trying to cast the final week of campaigning as a two-horse race between his party and the Tories, claims that Gordon Brown has "written himself out of the script of change" and that the Labour Party is in a fight for its very existence.

But he also twice refuses to rule out supporting a Conservative minority government if attempts to form a Lib-Con coalition fail as a result of Mr Cameron refusing to adopt electoral reform.

Yet a ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday today puts the Lib Dems back into third place after enjoying near-equal billing with the Tories as a result of Mr Clegg's stunning television debate performances. With only four full days of campaigning to go, the Conservatives have opened up a 10-point lead over Labour, 38 per cent to 28, while the Lib Dems are on 25. The poll also suggests that the Tory strategy of warning that a hung parliament would be bad for the economy is paying off, with voters turned off the idea.

Perhaps anticipating that voters are beginning to switch back to the "old" parties of Conservative and Labour, Mr Clegg says in an interview with the IoS that this Thursday presents the only chance to deliver electoral reform. In a direct pitch to voters, he says: "Let's not let this moment slip. Let's not let this extraordinary once-in-a-generation opportunity go by. It doesn't come along that often.

"There is the chance to resettle things in a new way. It is very unusual and I just don't want people to be bamboozled or bullied or frightened by the other parties into saying they cannot take a chance on big change this time. That is the main message.

"Let us not squander this once-in-a-generation chance – because it is a once-in-a-generation chance."

Seizing on the Prime Minister's final message in the third debate last Thursday, when he said that the result on 7 May might be Mr Cameron in government, with the support of Mr Clegg, the Lib Dem leader says his Labour rival had "nothing positive" to offer voters. He says: "Brown has written himself out of the script of change in as much as the only point in having an election is to debate what changes are going to happen. His words are hollow."

The Lib Dems are now the truly progressive party as Labour fights for survival, Mr Clegg claims.

"Regardless of the outcome of the general election, there is a real existential crisis for the Labour Party. They've really got to go right back to fundamentals: what on earth is the point of the Labour Party in these changed circumstances? What kind of brand of progressive politics does Labour possess in terms of the battle of ideas?"

The Tory leader, also in an interview with the IoS, pitches to the "liberally minded" readers of this newspaper to vote Conservative, claiming only his party can introduce change by winning an overall victory. "Liberal conservative" policies on the environment and civil liberties would "die" in the messy horse-trading of a hung parliament, Mr Cameron says.

The Conservative leader effectively admits that his zeal in pushing for the TV debates, which saw his poll lead pegged back by the Lib Dem surge, was a mistake, saying his bid for No 10 had been made "more challenging". He leaves the door open to negotiation with Mr Clegg by describing the Lib Dem leader as "easy to get on with", and promises to act "reasonably and responsibly" in any hung parliament negotiations.

After admitting yesterday that he had been damaged personally by calling Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy a "bigoted woman", Mr Brown found that his campaign difficulties continued when a heckler rounded on him in a glass factory in Sunderland.

The Prime Minister battled on, telling supporters: "I have come here, to a region of fighters, to talk about the fight ahead. Not Labour's fight in this election – but our country's fight for recovery. Because I fight every minute of every day not for my future but the future of Britain's hard-working families. And I fight not for my job, but for you to get a better deal in your job."

Writing in this newspaper, Labour's election strategist, Lord Mandelson, warns that the Conservatives and Lib Dems together "would be a disaster for Britain". But in his interview with the IoS, Mr Clegg attempts to steer clear of what he would do in the event of a hung parliament, but he twice refuses to rule out supporting a Tory minority government. There is speculation that, in the event that no two parties can agree on a coalition deal, the Lib Dems could nevertheless support the Tories if they had the largest number of seats and votes, in the national interest.

Mr Clegg says: "I am simply not going to get boxed in about talking about anything else. It would be presumptuous; it would be arrogant."

The past 10 days have seen a hardening of position between all three party leaders. Of the prospect of a Tory Britain, he says: "You'd have superficial changes in the political system at best, a country adrift in foreign affairs, a north-south divide coming back with a vengeance. You'd have a very cliquey feeling about who's running the country ... with Osborne and Cameron and friends.

"What is this big society? It is a big society with a price tag attached. It's a bit like inviting someone to a party in a pub and find that it's your card behind the bar paying for everyone's drinks. What is emerging is what has always been there, which is a well-oiled PR machine, but basically it's disguising fake change. It's hollow. There's nothing in it. For a long time they thought they could waft into No 10 no questions asked, with a sense of entitlement to govern the country again."

Mr Clegg, who has enjoyed an extraordinary personal and political journey over the past month, rejects the suggestion that his poll surge was because of the personality-driven live debates, and denies that the Lib Dems were now slipping in the polls because people were investigating their policies. He says he has survived a "tsunami wave of bile thrown in my direction" by right-wing newspapers.

The Lib Dem leader even audaciously claims that "it is also a possibility that we might come first in the number of votes cast".

Mr Clegg once said he was an atheist, but has since insisted he is agnostic, and attempts to clear up the mystery. He says he is not a "frothing atheist" but a "questioning agnostic", adding: "It must be wonderful to have faith. My wife is religious; my children are. But it is not something that has ever visited itself on me. Maybe it will happen one day." Maybe Friday? Mr Clegg laughs. "Yes," he says.

* Mr Cameron faced further embarrassment over his party's record on gay rights last night. The Observer claimed that Conservative candidate Philippa Stroud, who is standing in Sutton and Cheam where the Lib Dems have a 2,870 majority, founded a church which believed it could "cure" gays and lesbians by using prayer to drive out their "demons".

What are voters letting themselves in for?

A clear majority – If Labour wins, it's business as usual. If it's another party, it will be invited to form a government.

No majority – Even if Labour does not have the most seats, Gordon Brown will have the constitutional right to stay until the Queen's Speech on 25 May, to thrash out coalition deal.

Tory-led coalition – Cameron could form alliance with Lib Dems in exchange for electoral reform.

Tory minority rule – If horse-trading fails, Cameron can form a minority government, making agreements on a case-by-case basis.

Labour-led coalition – Clegg can opt for coalition with Labour. This coaltion too depends on concessions.

Another election – If no government can be constructed or the administrations that emerge are too fragile, a second election could follow.

Newspapers can't vote, but this is how they would line up

Daily Express – Not declared, but supportive of the Conservatives and energetically critical of Labour.

Financial Times – As yet undeclared, but critical of Labour.

The Guardian – Liberal Democrats. "If The Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats."

The Independent – Not declared.

The Independent on Sunday – Anti-Tory vote for electoral reform.

Daily Mail – Not officially declared, but highly critical of Labour and, latterly, the Lib Dems.

The Mail on Sunday – Conservative.

Daily Mirror – Labour.

Daily Star – Non-aligned, but urges readers to vote.

The Sun – Conservative.

The Daily Telegraph – Undeclared, but Tory-friendly and critical of Labour.

The Times – Conservative.

The Observer – Declared last night it was backing Lib Dems.

Sunday Express – Conservative.

Sunday Mirror – Labour.

The People – Favours a coalition and urges tactical voting to prevent a Tory majority.

The Sunday Telegraph – Tory.

The Sunday Times – Tory.

The News of the World – Tory.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015