The Liberal Democrats would support whichever party wins the most seats if both the Tories and Labour fail to secure an overall majority after the next election, its leader said yesterday.
Nick Clegg has up till now been coy about which of the two larger parties his own party would support if there is a hung parliament after next year's general election. Speculation had been mounting that Labour could win his backing with a deal over further reforms to Britain's electoral system. But Mr Clegg said yesterday he believed the party with the most electoral support had "first right" to lead the country, a position that looks likely to see his party join a coalition under David Cameron or allow the Tory leader to form a minority Government.
The latest opinion polls have suggested the Tory lead over Labour has narrowed, making a hung parliament a real possibility. An Ipsos Mori poll put the Conservatives' lead at just six percentage points, with 37 per cent of support, compared with 31 per cent for Labour, the narrowest gap for almost a year. If reflected at a general election, which is expected next Spring, such a result would leave Mr Cameron 35 seats short of an overall majority in the House of Commons.
Mr Clegg said the narrowing polls were a "really good thing" for Britain and that victory was no longer a "shoo-in" for Mr Cameron. Mr Clegg also revealed that he felt a democratic duty for his MPs to back the party that receives the most votes from the electorate. "The party which has got the strongest mandate from the British people will have the first right to seek to govern," he told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show.
"I start from a very simple first principle," he added. "It is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Nick Clegg who are kingmakers in British politics, it's the British people. The votes of the British people are what should determine what happens. Whichever party has the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me obvious in a democracy they have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others."
Mr Cameron said he had never believed that election victory for his party was a "shoo-in or a foregone conclusion". He said that he disagreed with his shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke, who had broken ranks to suggest that even a Labour victory would be preferable to a hung parliament.
"Ken has his own ways of explaining these things," Mr Cameron said. "I think frankly anything is better than another five years of this Labour Government. But I am working night and day, not for a hung parliament, but for a majority government because I do think that in Britain today we have got to take tough and difficult decisions. I would rather have a Government that can do that."
He revealed a Tory Government would set out an emergency Budget within 50 days of taking office, detailing how the party planned to reduce Britain's rising deficit. The Tories are trying to frame it as a "growth Budget" containing reforms on company and employment taxes to help businesses to return to profitability. Mr Cameron will develop the theme during his speech at the CBI conference today.