Vince Cable today raised the prospect of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government after the next election as he strongly defended his continuing contacts with Ed Miliband's party.
The Business Secretary also took a series of venomous swipes at his Conservative coalition partners, variously dismissing them as “head-bangers” and “backwoodsmen”.
His conference address clearly established him as the Liberal Democrat best placed to lead his party into a post-election agreement with Mr Miliband as Labour would be likely to demand Nick Clegg's head as a price for a deal.
The Labour leader has revealed he regularly swaps text messages with Mr Cable, while the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has lavished public praise on the Business Secretary.
Mr Cable joked today about the contacts, raising laughs as he got out his mobile phone during his speech and pretended to receive a call from Mr Miliband, but also made clear he was unrepentant about maintaining contacts with Labour.
“Many of the decisions we face, on banks, industrial strategy, climate change, go way beyond the limitations of one party or one parliament,” he said. “That is why I also make sure I have good communications with politicians across the political spectrum.”
He stressed the party would fight the next election as a “totally independent, national, credible challenger for power”. But he predicted it would result in another hung parliament and made clear the Liberal Democrats could work just as easily with Labour as the Conservatives in the national interest.
He said: “I don't believe actually that the British people will want to entrust their future to any one party next time. And if Britain wants sustainable growth, competence with compassion, fairness with freedom and more equality not ever greater division, then that government must have Liberal Democrats at its heart.”
The Business Secretary attacked the economic competence of “rootless New Labour” between 1997 and 2010, as well as its civil liberties record and the decision to invade Iraq.
But he reserved his fiercest language for his coalition partners, mocking the “Tory backwoodsmen” horrified by the “proper taxation of wealth and land” and said he relished the “enticing prospect of a Tory split” between David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
In a reference to Conservative ministers who want to relax employment laws, he said: “We have seen off the head-bangers who want a hire and fire culture and seem to find sacking people an aphrodisiac”.
An opinion poll today found the Liberal Democrats were more likely to win back voters lost since the 2010 election if Mr Cable - who has never ruled out standing for the party leadership - replaced Mr Clegg, with 29 per cent saying he would be an attractive leader compared with 13 per cent who said the same of Mr Clegg.