Clegg's popularity soars on two fronts

Lib Dem leader's stock rises with voters, while Mandelson concedes possibility of a coalition. Andrew Grice reports

Labour dangled the prospect of a Lib-Lab coalition government in front of Nick Clegg yesterday as a fresh poll showed that the Liberal Democrat leader's personal ratings have soared.

The Conservatives, alarmed by Mr Clegg's triumph in the first televised leaders' debates last week, issued a stark "vote Clegg, get Brown" warning as they tried to halt the Liberal Democrat bandwagon. The Tories will tell voters that backing the Liberal Democrats could result in a hung parliament with Gordon Brown remaining Prime Minister. A YouGov survey in today’s Sun newspaper puts the Liberal Democrats ahead on 33 per cent, the Tories on 32 per cent and Labour trailing on 26 per cent.

A ComRes survey of businessmen for The Independent revealed an improvement in Mr Clegg's standing. The proportion who have confidence in him has doubled from 20 to 41 per cent in the past month. Although he still trails David Cameron (65 per cent), he has surpassed Mr Brown's 28 per cent. The number of businessmen who believe the shadow Chancellor George Osborne "lacks experience" has risen from 78 to a record 80 per cent. The survey of 170 business leaders shows that the number who detect the "green shoots" of economic recovery in their sector has risen sharply in the past month from 49 to 61 per cent.

The economy will take centre stage this week with the publication of official figures on unemployment, inflation, the public finances and growth. Although the number of jobless has fallen in the past three months, ministers have been warned that Wednesday's figures may show a rise.

Lord Mandelson, who heads Labour's campaign, criticised some Liberal Democrat policies but made clear that a coalition government would not be a disaster. It is the first time a senior Labour figure has spoken about a Lib-Lab coalition, in which Liberal Democrats would sit in a Brown Cabinet. In a memo to Labour members, Lord Mandelson said: "I am not against coalition government in principle and for Britain, anything would be better than a Cameron-Osborne government."

The Secretary of State for Business said a two-party government would not be so stable without a "big unifying challenge". He named that as constitutional change, urging Liberal Democrat supporters in 100 or so Labour-Tory marginal seats to vote Labour to secure reform of the voting system for Westminster. He predicted, however, that the voters would turn away from their current "flirtation" with Mr Clegg.

Mr Brown adopted a similar two-pronged approach, branding the Liberal Democrats' economic policies "a mistake" but saying he wanted them to join a "progressive consensus". Interviewed on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show, he tried to head off the "vote Clegg, get Brown" Tory attack by refusing to confirm he would serve a full five-year term in Downing Street.

At a press conference today Mr Brown will try to shift the spotlight to the economy and away from what has been called "Cleggmania". Labour insists the public's main concern is securing the recovery and the Prime Minister will attack over the Tories' decision to halt most of next year's rise in national insurance contributions, arguing that the £6bn of cuts it would require would risk a double-dip recession. The Tories insisted they would be "relentlessly positive" but would attack Liberal Democrat policies on immigration, crime and Europe, while warning that voting for Mr Clegg could keep Mr Brown in No 10. "It comes down to who you want to be prime minister," said one Tory source.

Speaking in Swindon, Mr Cameron said: "If you want to wake up on 7 May and be absolutely certain that you've got new leadership in this country and are not stuck with another five years of Gordon Brown, stuck with dithering and despair and depression, the only way to get that is a decisive Conservative vote."

The Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable was asked if he would serve as Chancellor in the event of a hung parliament. He said he would act "not just in the party's interest but in the national interest", but would demand certain "fundamental economic policies" such as tackling the public deficit and getting banks lending again.

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