Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, slapped down suggestions that his party could forge an electoral pact with the Conservatives at the next general election.
He gave qualified approval to the early record of the coalition government, which marks its 100th day in office this week, rating its performance as "eight out of 10, probably". Mr Hughes also renewed his criticism of David Cameron's support for the end of life-long council house tenancies, predicting that he would be forced to abandon the proposal.
As Nick Clegg returned to London to take over the day-to-day running of Government during the Prime Minister's holiday, Mr Hughes was scathing about the prospects of a deal between the parties at the election. The idea of the coalition parties stepping aside for one another in their safest seats has been widely floated – and was not ruled out last week by the Tory chairman, Baroness Warsi.
But Mr Hughes insisted the Liberal Democrats were "committed constitutionally" to contesting every parliamentary seat – and added that Mr Clegg knew that. "We will be standing in every seat at the next election. There will be no deals, no pacts," he told Sky News.
He said the idea of a pact was "nonsense" because the coalition was an agreement limited to the five-year period of a parliament to "do business with the Tory Party because the electorate gave no party a majority".
Mr Hughes, who is on the left of his party, said the Liberal Democrats "should have no preference at the next election between the Tories and Labour and other parties".
He was speaking at a difficult moment for the party which is languishing in the opinion polls and some of whose MPs fear they are being used as cover for ideologically-driven spending cuts by the Conservatives.
Mr Hughes maintained that there was widespread support in the country for the notion of parties working together in the national interest.
Asked for his assessment of how the first 100 days had gone, he replied: "I don't think anybody does everything perfectly, but where things haven't gone perfectly it is only because you have to get used to the idea of how you organise a coalition."
He predicted that critics of Mr Cameron's plan for fixed-term council tenancies would "win this argument".
Mr Hughes said: "People have very difficult lives, lots of financial pressures, lose their job, relationships break down. The one thing you need is to give people at least the certainty that, as long as they are not bad tenants, as long as they pay their way, they will be able to stay in their home."
Mr Clegg returned from his summer break in Spain yesterday and returns today to his desk in the Cabinet Office to take over from Mr Cameron, who is holidaying in Cornwall. Liberal Democrat sources said Mr Hughes's intervention was designed to prevent the Liberal Democrat leader facing endless questions over an electoral pact.
Although Downing Street said the Prime Minister remained in overall control of the Government, aides have said he would only be bothered with the most pressing problems. One senior Liberal Democrat said: "Nick Clegg is holding the fort while the Prime Minister is on holiday. He will be the public face of the Government."
The Deputy Prime Minister will today begin his fortnight in the spotlight with an online question-and-answer session in London with members of the public. He will also hold "town hall"-style meetings this week in the North-east and South-west and deliver a speech on his improving social mobility.
He is bound to be challenged on the scale of planned spending cuts, but will also attempt to deliver an upbeat prediction of more prosperous times ahead after the immediate pain.Reuse content