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Nick Clegg appears to rule out propping up a lame-duck Brown government as Paddy Ashdown says the Lib Dems would not go into coalition with the Tories

TV Debate Nick Clegg In what could potentially turn out to be one of the most important utterances of the campaign, Nick Clegg has given an interview to this morning's Sunday Times in which he says that he would not prop up a lame-duck Brown government in the event of a hung parliament.

Here are the key excerpts from the paper's write-up of what he had to say:

The Liberal Democrat leader is ready to tear up the rulebook and oust the prime minister if there is no decisive result on May 6. In a Sunday Times interview he warned that Brown’s position would be untenable if Labour got a low share of the popular vote but still ended up as the biggest party in the Commons.

“I think it’s a complete nonsense. I mean, how on earth? You can’t have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10 just because of the irrational idiosyncrasies of our electoral system,” Clegg said.

Clegg said the election was now effectively a two-horse race between the Tories and the Lib Dems. “Labour is increasingly irrelevant. The question now [about what would happen] is one in which the Labour party plays no role,” he said.

In the Sunday Times interview, the Lib Dem leader revealed that he would support the Tories if they won the largest number of seats and largest share of the votes. This would defy the constitutional convention which would give Brown first call on attempting to form a government.

“I tie my hands in the following sense: that the party that has more votes and seats, but doesn’t get an absolute majority — I support them,” Clegg said.

This will come as a devastating blow to those in the Labour Party who have been grasping to the hope of a so-called "progressive coalition" with the Lib Dems as a way of keeping the Conservatives out of power if David Cameron failed to win an outright Commons majority.

It also suggests to me that the Lib Dems have been finding the Conservative message that a vote for the Lib Dems could let Brown cling on to power very potent on the doorsteps.

Yet given this intervention, it is all the more intriguing to read what Paddy Ashdown has to say in The People this morning.

Lord Ashdown, who has been "spinning" for Clegg after the leaders' debates, explicitly tells the paper:

"Nick Clegg cannot work with David Cameron... We could not go into a coalition with the Tories, it wouldn't work."

I have always thought that the Lib Dem membership would not countenance such a deal with the Conservatives.

So I surmise from the words of both Clegg and Ashdown this morning that unless Labour wins the most votes and the most seats (in which case it would seem the Lib Dems would then be up for doing a deal with Labour), the Lib Dems are not interested in seeking ministerial office.

10am update:

Nick Clegg has just been interviewed by Andrew Marr on BBC1 and frankly has created even more confusion about his position.

He repeated his assertion from the Sunday Times interview that it would be "preposterous" for a party to lay claim to continue providing the Prime Minister if it has come third in the popular vote; but Andrew Marr put forward a scenario where Labour lose in terms of votes but gets the largest number of MPs and then bring in someone like Alan Johnson or David Miliband as leader. Clegg's response was:

"Here we get into 'what if?' territory, which is difficult to anticipate."

In other words, he is leaving himself wriggle room at least for propping up Labour under an alternative leader.

Furthermore, later in the interview he said that he "could sit around the Cabinet table with anyone" who agrees to his key policy demands - which presumably could even include Gordon Brown.

All in all, Clegg is playing a very slippering game.

> WATCH a clip of the interview here (albeit not including that final exchange where Clegg says he would be willing to sit around the Cabinet with anyone)

2.15pm update:

I am grateful to BBC political editor Nick Robinson for providing the transcript of that final crucial exchange on his blog:

ANDREW MARR: Could you sit round a cabinet table with David Cameron?

NICK CLEGG: I could sit around a cabinet table with anyone who agrees with me that what we need to do is hard wire fairness into the British... into the tax system.

ANDREW MARR: Including Gordon Brown?

NICK CLEGG: Anyone...

Jonathan Isaby