Lib Dem plot to oust Nick Clegg - Michael Gove
Nick Clegg only questioned plans to allow nursery staff to look after more children to shore up his position as Lib Dem leader, Michael Gove has said.
The Tory education secretary said Mr Clegg had to "show a bit of leg" to his party but really backed the scheme.
Mr Gove suggested Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott was behind a plot to "destabilise" Mr Clegg and install his ally Vince Cable as party leader.
Lib Dem sources dismissed Mr Gove's claims as "loopy".
Lord Oakeshott, who in the past has suggested the party should consider ditching Mr Clegg as leader, also insisted there was "no plot".
He said: "Was Gove on Marr or Have I Got Old News for You - 'Oakeshott prefers Cable to Clegg shock?!'
"I went on the record after last year's local elections on the need for us to change strategy and management and this year's (results) are grim again.
"But there's no plot - unlike the others, we're a democratic party and our members elect our leader.
"Gove is just trying to divert attention from the Conservative chasm on Europe and Captain Cameron's impotence on the bridge when even his officers in government won't obey orders."
In December, Mr Clegg appeared to back plans by junior education minister Liz Truss to allow childminders and nursery staff in England to look after more children.
But last week the deputy prime minister said he had doubts about whether it would cut costs for parents, and also expressed concerns about child safety.
Ms Truss has argued that the changes would lower childcare costs and allow professionals in the sector to be paid higher salaries.
Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, Mr Gove said the reforms were "absolutely right" but that he was prepared to look at "an adjustment here or there" to meet concerns.
Asked about Mr Clegg's position, he said: "I don't think we can understand Nick Clegg's position without also appreciating the position he is in because of internal Lib Dem politics.
"There is a campaign being led by Matthew Oakeshott, this Liberal Democrat in the Lords, to try to destabilise Nick Clegg because Matthew Oakeshott wants Vince Cable to succeed him. Nick, understandably, needs to show Lib Dems that he is fighting hard.
"I understand. That's one of the things that happen in coalition.
"We have had discussions with Nick in the past where we haven't always had the same starting position but in the end, because he is a reasonable guy, we have managed to find an appropriate synthesis."
He went on: "Lord Oakeshott is on manoeuvres, he is trying to promote Vince. It is understandable that within the Lib Dems these things go on.
"Nick has to show a bit of leg, as it were, on these issues."
The claims of a plot against Mr Clegg were dismissed by the deputy prime minister's spokesman.
"We appreciate that Michael has ambitions of his own and is keen to distract attention from his party's divisions on Europe.
"But he knows our concerns are based on the overwhelmingly negative response from experts and parents to the government's consultation.
"Those are concerns a number of Conservatives have expressed in private.
"Nick Clegg will not allow dogma to be put ahead of the interests of Britain's children, especially when there's no evidence whatsoever that it would reduce the sky-high costs of childcare."
A senior Lib Dem source added that Michael Gove's suggestion was "loopy" and he should "calm down".
"He doesn't know anything about the Lib Dems, but he knows plenty about leadership ambitions," the source added.
Conservative defence secretary Philip Hammond, questioned about the claims on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme, said he was "not privy to the internal workings" of the Lib Dems.
But he added: "Vince Cable has always been an ambitious man."