Large majorities of Liberal Democrat councillors and activists would prefer the party to go into coalition with Labour than the Conservatives if the 2015 general election produces a hung Parliament, according to a pair of polls.
The findings came as Nick Clegg and other Lib Dem ministers were using their annual conference in Glasgow to highlight policy differences with Conservative coalition partners, as part of an effort to win public recognition for the party's distinctive approach to key issues and its successes in reining back Tory ambitions.
The Deputy Prime Minister himself denounced "bizarre" Tory ideas about employment rights and said only the Lib Dems could speak credibly about creating and defending jobs, while Business Secretary Vince Cable spoke of "tensions" with Conservative ministers over climate change and Energy Secretary Ed Davey said he was in "constant battles" over wind power generation.
Party sources said Mr Clegg wanted the Lib Dems to be bold in claiming credit, in the 20 months remaining before the 2015 election, not only for what they have achieved in government but also for what they have prevented the Conservatives from doing.
Leading Lib Dems refused to be drawn on which party they would prefer to forge a coalition with if there is no clear winner in 2015.
Former leader Lord Ashdown, who opposed the pact with the Tories in 2010, admitted he was "wrong" about that and suggested that - although their hearts are "on the centre-left" - a second coalition with Conservatives would be acceptable to the party.
The Lib Dem peer, who will chair the campaign for the next election, told The Observer: "Instinctively, I hate both of them. When you ask me to choose between Labour or Tories, it's like asking me whether I'd rather be run over by a train or a bus. Wherever our hearts lie - everybody knows where that is, it's on the centre-left - the reality is that we do business in the national interest with those who the electorate have asked us to do business with."
The Independent on Sunday published a poll conducted by the website Liberal Democrat Voice, which found that 39% of activists questioned would prefer a Lib Dem-Labour coalition after 2015, compared with just 15% who favour another coalition with the Conservatives. A further 15% of those questioned said that, in the event of a hung parliament, Mr Clegg's party should forge a "confidence and supply" agreement with Labour, under which Lib Dems would not enter coalition but would undertake not to bring down the minority government or vote against its Budget. Just 6% wanted an arrangement of this kind with Tories.
Meanwhile, a ComRes poll for BBC2's Sunday Politics found that 38% of Lib Dem councillors would support an alliance with Labour, with 16% favouring a repeat of the deal with the Conservatives. But almost a quarter (23%) said the party should not form another coalition. Some 38% of councillors backed Mr Cable as their preferred candidate to replace Mr Clegg if he quit as party leader, with party president Tim Farron on 27% and Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander on 10%.
Speaking to the Press Association, Mr Clegg said he would use the conference to set out "a number of very distinctive ideas which set us apart from the Conservatives", as he sets out his position that Lib Dems will be the only party at the next election offering both a stronger economy and a fairer society. He told a rally of activists on the first night of the conference: "I want you to join me in getting back out there and telling everyone this: we are the party of fairness; we are the party of freedom; and, yes, we are the party of jobs."