Nick Clegg yesterday tried to calm fears in his party that he would plunge into a post-election pact with David Cameron after the threat of a major rebellion by left-wingers in his ranks.
The Liberal Democrat leader was forced to row back on remarks in which he praised Margaret Thatcher for her tough stance against the unions, as his spring conference was dominated by talk of which party he would support in the event of a hung parliament.
Closing the conference in Birmingham today, Mr Clegg will try to move on from talk of coalitions with either of the two main parties by declaring: "I am not the kingmaker – the 45 million voters of Britain are the kingmakers. This election is a time for voters to choose, not a time for politicians to play footsie with each other."
Yet in the past week, Mr Clegg and senior party figures were forced to navigate a difficult path between Labour and the Conservatives, sending out messages that could be interpreted as supportive of both.
Left-wing Lib Dems, including the respected work and pensions spokesman, Steve Webb, have warned Mr Clegg not to rush into a Lib-Con pact, even if the Tories are the largest party and have the moral mandate to form a government. Many Lib Dems say they have more in common with Labour than Conservative policy. Any move to go into coalition with the Tories – or Labour – would require the backing of two-thirds of the party.
One senior Lib Dem said: "Many voters I meet don't want to see a Tory government in whatever form. How can I tell them to vote against that when we could be sharing power with David Cameron?"
In his speech today, Mr Clegg will stick to the line that "the party with the strongest mandate from voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern". He will also pre-empt claims by Tories and Labour that a vote for his party would be "wasted".
But yesterday, during a question and answer session, Mr Clegg was asked by an angry delegate why he had praised Baroness Thatcher in two newspaper interviews last week, in an apparent attempt to burnish tougher credentials. Mr Clegg insisted his words had been taken out of context and that he had only referred to how she had taken on the vested interests of the unions.
The Lib Dem leader added: "I violently opposed and am hostile to pretty well everything she did. I represent now a city, Sheffield, which was socially and economically devastated by the brutality of the so-called Thatcher revolution."
Earlier, in an interview with Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Clegg described the Conservatives' plans to implement immediate public spending cuts as "economic masochism".
He has previously suggested "savage cuts" are needed to tackle the deficit, but disagrees with the Tory plan to introduce cuts in the next financial year. He told Today: "We think that merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism. If anyone had to rely on our support, and we were involved in government, of course we would say no."
Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, also focused on criticising the Tories' economic policy at the conference yesterday. He told delegates: "People are desperate to see the back of this Labour government. But they don't want the same old Tories. There is an alternative." Mr Cable received the loudest applause for his comment "same old Tories".
He added: "We must and will be fiscally responsible. Unlike the Tories and their cronies who want to create a financial panic and a run on sterling to frighten people into voting for them.
"Playing fast and loose with the financial stability of this country for political gain – destabilising the markets – is dangerous, irresponsible and wrong."
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Clegg's chief of staff, Danny Alexander, emphasised the need for economic stability. He also suggested that the Lib Dems would be inclined towards the status quo of a Labour government that was tackling the recession, rather than a new Tory administration that wanted to start slashing public spending.
Mr Alexander said: "Whatever government is formed needs to be able to deliver economic stability and needs to be able to take the tough decisions that are necessary to sort out the public finances."
In response to the concerns of Mr Webb and others, he said: "As a party we have strong internal democratic processes and these are our greatest strength because they can ensure that the party can move forward in a united way whatever the circumstances."
The Lib Dems have unveiled four main policy areas for their manifesto, which they say are non-negotiable in any discussion of a coalition: a fair tax system, a green economy, pupil premium in schools and reform of the political system, including a concrete commitment to proportional representation.
Mr Alexander told the IoS: "It is a package, a unifying package, that's what a Liberal Democrat government would deliver and that's what the MPs who will be elected will seek to deliver."