Ministers set to wrangle over cuts to the last minute

The man responsible for overseeing huge spending cuts admitted last night that there was still a "long way to go" to reach a deal over where they would be made.

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, suggested that talks on cutting £83bn from spending would go to the wire. They are due to be announced on 20 October.

Mr Alexander told the Independent fringe meeting: "We're making good progress, but there is a lot longer to go. These are incredibly difficult decisions. They weigh heavily on our shoulders."

He insisted that there was no alternative to dramatic action to reduce the £155bn deficit, and brushed off suggestions that heavy cuts could trigger a double-dip recession.

"All the forecasts suggest the recovery will be choppy, but we will see growth in coming years and that is what other commentators say," he told the packed meeting.

He added that he believed the biggest threat to that recovery would be to fail to deliver on the Government's deficit reduction programme.

Revealing he had developed a "pretty thick skin" since taking over as Chief Secretary, a role he described as the toughest job he had ever done, Mr Alexander, who previously led a campaign for British membership of the single European currency, conceded he was relieved that the country was not in the euro.

"I'm not saying there is not a case for the long term, but that is a long way off. But the flexibility we now have is benefiting the economy."

Mr Alexander, a key member of the team that negotiated the coalition agreement, disclosed that he was the first Liberal Democrat to walk into Downing Street – even before Nick Clegg – to check there were no last-minute hitches. He said: "I sneaked in through the back door."

He said it was apparent as soon as the election results came in that the only "stable, sustainable" power-sharing deal would be with David Cameron.

Mr Alexander agreed that it came as surprise that the Liberal Democrat team "hit it off" with their Tory opposite numbers. He said: "There was a real chemistry from the start. That came from both sides and was a signal of both sides' willingness to make it work."

By contrast, he said that the first formal meeting with Labour over a possible coalition made it "abundantly clear" that no deal could be reached. He added that while Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis were genuine in their attempts to reach an agreement, both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were unco-operative.

Conference diary

*Charles Kennedy made his third and final no-show after his non-appearances at the pre-conference rally on Saturday and a Radio 4 interview on Sunday. He was due yesterday to address a fringe meeting, but sent fellow MP Jo Swinson in his place. He was last seen heading out of Lime Street on a southbound train. His office explained that he had to attend a "family event".

Trouble at the door

Another former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, repeatedly set off the airport-style metal detectors installed for the first time at the conference. Shrapnel from an old war wound perhaps? The Captain wearily submitted to the indignities of being rubbed down by security staff.

*Lord Ashdown was joined at the door by another waiting dignitary: Miriam Clegg, who forgot her security pass. The door staff eventually relented and let her in, just in time for her husband to take the stage.

Speechifiers given night off

When he was running the party, Lord Ashdown would have agonised over his speech until the very last moment. No such problem for Nick Clegg: he was due to hold a four-hour meeting on Sunday with advisers to discuss its contents. He wrapped it up early, explaining that it was all finished, leaving his team free for an unexpected evening of carousing.