Nick Clegg today shrugged off the idea he would play the role of kingmaker in a hung parliament, telling the Liberal Democrats' pre-election conference that the party "could lead the next government" if it upped its share of the vote from one in four to one in three.
Speaking over the heads of the party faithful, the leader encouraged wavering voters to vote "with your heart" and not dismiss the Lib Dems because the electoral maths where they lived suggested the party would not win a seat outright.
The Lib Dems should seek to break the two-party duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives, he said, and end the "pass the parcel" electoral system by increasing their share of the vote to 33% from the 22.1% received in 2005.
He cast the choice as "between the party of the few and the party of no one".
After the speech, aides explained the party thought it could reach a vote share percentage in the high 20s, by gaining three points more than usual with the increased profile of an election campaign, then another two to three on Clegg's participation in the party leaders' TV debates.
Currently, the party is dogged by opinion polls suggesting a hung parliament that would see the Lib Dems called on to support one of the other two parties. Clegg told the Lib Dems in Birmingham: "I am not the kingmaker. The 45 million voters of Britain are the kingmakers. They give the politicians their marching orders, not the other way round. It's called democracy – and I kind of like it.
"Almost one in four voters chose the Liberal Democrats at the last election. If that increased to one in three we could lead the next government. This election is a time for voters to choose, not a time for politicians to play footsie with each other. The party with the strongest mandate from voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern."
Speaking with a sore throat that occasionally gave way, Clegg emphasised the four pledges that constituted the centre of the Lib Dems' election offer. He repeated the first of these – raising the personal tax threshold to £10,000 – three times to urge activists to use it more on the doorstep. Party aides said it was playing well both in the north of England and the south, appealing to both natural Tory and Labour voters. The other three pledges were £2.5bn extra funding for schooling, reform of Westminster and reform of the City.
If his party did form part of a government, Clegg said, it would be the "guarantor of good sense", having already gone further than the others in identifying £15bn of spending cuts a year by 2012, two-thirds of which would go in to reducing the deficit. At the end, he was rewarded with an ovation and whoops of support.
Though Clegg played down talk of a hung parliament, before he had even made his speech senior MPs from rival parties played a game of tug of war over the prospect of the Lib Dems doing a deal with the Tories.
Claiming that many in the party's grassroots were social democrats rather than liberals, the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, said an alliance with the Conservatives should there be a hung parliament would "destroy" the Lib Dems. Shadow business secretary Ken Clarke said Nick Clegg was a conservative with whom he shared the same views. In his speech Clegg made light of these competing arguments saying the pair were "close to confusion".
The Lib Dems have repeatedly insisted they cannot enter a coalition without what is known as the "triple lock", which requires three-quarters of the party to agree to any move that would compromise its independence.
Aides to the leadership insisted that this process would be quick, taking less than a week, a rebuttal aimed to counter concerns within the financial markets that the involvement of the Lib Dems in any post-election negotiations could be slowed down. Equally, the grassroots wanted to know that the triple lock mechanism would kick in if the party was deciding on issues that would not strictly compromise its independence but that they would not support, such as voting through a Tory Queen's speech or emergency budget.
The question of which of its rivals the party might support bedevilled the conference, with one of the party's highest-profile backers, the agony aunt Claire Rayner, criticising Clegg for comments he made last week praising Margaret Thatcher for battling the unions in the 80s. Rayner said the Lib Dem leader was trying to "butter up" David Cameron ahead of possibly entering government with him.
Clarke told the BBC the Tories would push for Lib Dem waverers to vote Conservative, showing them "the futility of being a liberal party". He said: "I like the Liberal, I like Nick Clegg, but he's in a hopeless position. Nick is a conservative, his views are very like mine; Vince Cable is a social democrat ... the party is all over the place. I think they're in a hopeless dilemma."
Labour is engaged in two moves: one to prevent wavering supporters from voting Lib Dem, and one to persuade the Lib Dem leadership it is only with Labour that they could form a successful alliance.
On the BBC Andrew Marr show, Adonis, a former Lib Dem, said: "I cannot conceive of the circumstances where the Lib Dems could support the Conservatives in government. I think it would destroy their own party. The issue they have to address is: are they basically on the centre-left in politics ... or are they going to try to shift to the right because they sense that may be a short-term populist strategy, but which would betray their own principles and destroy their party?"
Little voiceNick Clegg likes to cast himself as the nice man who's also a hardman, but his conference analysis of where the other parties were failing was less cutthroat than sore throat. As he tried to raise the volume of his indignant passion, denouncing the Tories as protection racketeers and Labour as dishonest, his voice gave out like a boy having a stab at soaring rhetoric. Happily, the speech was warmly received with rapt applause of the Lib Dem party faithful managing to drown out some of their leader's more hoarse and whimpering crescendos.
Clegg appeared to be the only one of his inner circle to have succumbed to conference flu. He had begun to lose his voice on Saturday after a marathon interview schedule with the media.
But in the speech he used his hoarseness to his own end. While denouncing the other two parties for doing their deals behind closed doors, his voice disappeared. "At least you know I didn't get it in smoke-filled rooms," he recovered to say.