Nick Clegg – Bye bye David, hello Ed?

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Media captionNick Clegg: Coalition isn't about personal preferences

Picture the scene. The votes have been counted. The result is uncertain. The general election has, once again, not produced a clear result. The talk is of another coalition. The question is whether the Liberal Democrats will now join forces with Labour instead of the Conservatives.

Will Nick Clegg be ready to say "Bye bye David Cameron, hello Ed, I will be your deputy now"? Today I asked the deputy prime minister just that and here's what he said:

"I tell you why I could, it isn't about my personal preference, this isn't about my personal preferences, it isn't about whether this person likes that person more, or whether they get on better with this person. It's not about that, it is about following the instructions, the instruction manual handed to us."

I put it to him that "there may be people who say 'the Liberal Democrats currently have one in 12 voters supporting them - isn't it frankly a blooming nerve to say that 'I, Nick Clegg should be deputy prime minister forever and a day'?" To which he replied:

"I am not saying I should be deputy prime minister forever and a day, absolutely not… What I am saying is that I think that the worst thing in the country now… given the mistakes of the past - governments kept messing things up, first the red team then the blue team - is to jeopardise the recovery by allowing the Conservative and the Labour parties on their own in a single party (government) to mess things up again."

All this raises an important question. Does he think that Miliband would be a good prime minister?:

"I have no idea, it hasn't happened, it hasn't happened yet. I don't think you should judge people until they have been able to prove themselves. I think that there is a bit of a blank at the moment in what the Labour Party thinks but I am assuming at some point they will get round to telling us about what they would actually do. I personally think that the Labour Party and Ed Miliband himself… have assumed that the general election is somehow going to be delivered to them on a plate simply by criticising the coalition and the difficult decisions that we've had to make - often unpopular decisions - to clean up the mess they left behind."

What the deputy prime minister was clear about was that Vince Cable was wrong - again - to talk about the possibility of the current the coalition ending before the election:

"That won't happen, we will see this through to 2015. It is a decision for the leader, I am the leader of the party. I have made it very clear to demonstrate that coalition government works, but also to demonstrate that we are doing the job of clearing up this monumental economic mess left to us by Labour we need the full five years to get the job going."

The talk all week here at this conference has been market research showing that a quarter of voters would be willing to consider voting Liberal Democrat. Nick Clegg is deploying a negative and a positive message to try to woo them. First he's claiming that only he can mitigate the extremism of a single party Tory or Labour government. Secondly, he's arguing this coalition has proved there are some things - such as reforming social care - that it's easier for coalitions to do.

In the process, though, he has to confront voters with the possibility that he will stay in power and may stay as deputy prime minister whoever the country chooses as its leader.

Image caption Nick Clegg said the coalition will last to May 2015

PS The Lib Dem announcement of free school meals for all five, six and seven-year-olds is evidence that ministers are determined to make a series of gestures designed to alleviate the squeeze many families are feeling. Expect George Osborne to follow with his own in the Autumn Statement and the weeks leading up to it. It means that we will have the odd spectacle of politicians competing to offer hand-outs at the same time as they resist pressure to spell out the extra spending cuts and higher taxes which may be necessary for at least the next five years.

Here's the transcript of the relevant section of my interview with Nick Clegg:

Q: An underlying argument this week has been it is good to have another coalition after the next election… So, are you saying that I, Nick Clegg, would happily serve as Ed Miliband's deputy?

A: Of course I would serve in a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition if that is clearly what the British people want and of course it is possible to assemble a coalition of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

Q: Would he be a good prime minister?

A: I have no idea, it hasn't happened yet. I don't think you should judge people until they have been able to prove themselves.

Q: You've dealt with him a lot, you've just dealt with him over Syria

A: Yes, look I personally think that the Labour Party and Ed Miliband himself they need, I think that they have assumed that somehow the general election is somehow going to be delivered to them on a plate simply by criticising the coalition and the difficult decisions that we've had to make - often unpopular decisions to clean up the mess they left behind. I have a rather old fashioned view that in politics you do best when you actually set out some positive ideas about what you would do. So, I think that there is a bit of a blank at the moment in what the Labour Party thinks but I am assuming at some point they will get round to telling us about what they would actually do. But what you asked was do I, as a democrat, believe that if the British people say that the most legitimate outcome of the next general election would be a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, of course I would be prepared to play my part in that as long as we can get the details right

Q: But as a human being - rather than as a democrat - could you, Nick Clegg, could you comfortably after the next election say 'Bye bye David Cameron, hello Ed, I will be your deputy now"?

A: I tell you why I could, it isn't about my personal preference this isn't about my personal preferences it isn't about whether this person likes that person more, or whether they get on better with this person, it's not about that, it is about following the instructions, the instruction manual handed to us. I will give you a very good example, after the last election Gordon Brown and myself sat down because Gordon Brown wanted to explore the possibility of a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition I said to him, I remember saying to him very, very vividly over and over again we can't do this because there is no mandate from the British people to do that because the number of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were not sufficient to create a majority. I've always been very clear, in the run up to the last general election and I will remain consistent and clear in the run up to the next general election, I will always seek to do what the British people have said to us politicians what they want us to do.

Q: There may be people who say "the Liberal Democrats currently have one in 12 voters supporting them, isn't it frankly a blooming nerve to say that 'I, Nick Clegg should be deputy prime minister forever and a day'?"

A: I am not saying I should be deputy prime minister forever and a day, absolutely not. I won't be …

Q: You are talking about doing it after the next election.

A: What I am saying - well that's not forever and a day - what I am saying is that I think that the worst thing in the country now, I just happen to genuinely believe that given the mistakes of the past, governments kept messing things up - first the red team, then the blue team - is to jeopardise the recovery by allowing the Conservative and the Labour parties on their own in as a single party to mess things up again.

Q: How do you make the public fall in love again with the idea of coalition government, you believe in it, the polls seem to suggest that people loathe coalition they seem to see it as a fudge and a compromise?

A: I am not sure that is entirely true, but whatever the policy from one day to the next, I have to prove to people - and that's why we will see the coalition through to 2015 - that this coalition has done very unusual things that single party governments of the past have not been able to do we've set out changes to social care so that social care costs are capped, so people don't have to sell their house for their care.

I only single that out because that is something that single party governments in the past could never really tackle and we have as a coalition.

And at the same time, we've struck the right balance, the Liberal Democrats in this government have prevented the Conservatives from doing a lot of unfair things - introducing profit-making to state schools, saying to nurses and teachers that they are going to earn less in the north than in the south, allowing employers the right to fire employees at will with no reasons given.

I think those examples show that we do positive things together which have eluded single party governments in the past, but we Liberal Democrats also ensure that this government is anchored in the liberal centre ground and doesn't become captive of an unfair approach to life that you seen on the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Q: Vince Cable talked about the coalition ending before the election I think you've just said that won't happen.

A: That won't happen. We will see this through to 2015. That's what we've said. In fact - we have done more than that - we've actually passed a law which says that this parliament will last till May 2015 and I am not going to...

Q: There seems to be a series of things that Vince Cable doesn't seem to know that you've agreed?

A: Well he certainly knows that our commitment is to see this coalition through to May 2015

Q: Do you think his commitment is to see it through? Do you think he might walk away?

A: To be fair to Vince, he made it clear, that first and foremost it is a decision for the leader. I am the leader of the party. I have made it very clear that to demonstrate coalition government works but also to demonstrate that we are doing the job of clearing up this monumental economic mess left to us by Labour - we need the full five years to get the job going.

Q: But he's got a personal decision therefore whether to stick with it?

A: No, I think to be fair, Vince said this is a decision which needs, which is primarily if you like for leaders to take, I have been very clear all along that our commitment is to a full five-year term. That's what we said to the British people. We are not now going to short-change the British people by cutting and running. I don't think that is something that would impress anybody.