Nick Clegg has given his strongest hint yet that he will join forces with David Cameron if the election results in a hung Parliament, by saying that his predecessors were "left at the altar" by Labour.
The Liberal Democrat leader revealed Paddy Ashdown recently warned him "Just don't go anywhere near them again", referring to the way Tony Blair flagged up the prospect of a Lib-Lab pact in the run-up to the 1997 election, only to renege on any deal following victory.
The narrowing of the Tory lead over Labour has reignited speculation that the election, expected on 6 May, could result in a hung Parliament, with Mr Clegg lined up as a possible king-maker.
Previously tight-lipped when discussing future coalitions with Labour or the Conservatives, Mr Clegg used uncharacteristically colourful language to decry the way Labour behaved towards his party in 1997. "I've looked very carefully at my predecessors," he told The Daily Telegraph. "Look at how Ming got led up the garden path. Look at the way Paddy was left at the altar. I've spoken to people. Paddy is vociferous about it. He says, 'Just don't go anywhere near them again. It might have made sense then, but don't [do it].'"
He added: "It was a conspiracy of Blair's mendacity and Brown's obduracy."
In the past, Mr Clegg has said his party lies "equidistant" between Labour and the Tories, although he recently modified his position by saying the party with the largest number of seats would have a "moral" mandate to run the country – suggesting a coalition with the Conservatives.
However, his deputy, Vince Cable, has closer ties with Labour figures than with Conservatives.
The Lib Dems plan to go on the offensive on the economy this week, when they will highlight their plans to help low earners, with a starting rate for tax of £10,000. And in a speech to the Welsh Lib Dem conference in Swansea yesterday, Mr Clegg pointed out that incomes in Wales are lower than anywhere else in Britain. The Lib Dems will defend four seats in Wales and are targeting Newport, Wrexham and Swansea.
Mr Clegg told activists: "The Liberal Democrat vision for Wales has fairness at its heart. There are districts with chronic levels of unemployment, and too many rural communities have lost local services, and, with them, their energy and life. It's the result of decades of neglect from successive governments, Labour and Conservatives alike.
"Fairer taxes, help for businesses, better funding and more power for people – those are the changes I want to see in Wales. We need to tackle the hardship that is a blight on too many households."