Uncomfortable silence: Clegg distances himself from his allies

Nick Clegg is distancing himself from his supposed allies, with sharp comments about Vince Cable, Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron at the Liberal Democrat conference in Scotland.

The deputy prime minister will use his conference speech later to lambast Cameron's values, with a telling passage which compares the Liberal Democrat push for free school meals for infant school pupils with Tory plans for a married couples' tax allowance.

"Their priority is to help some families over others, with a tax break for married couples," he will say.

"That tells you everything you need to know about their values.

"We however, will help all families in these tough times, not just the kind we like best, by helping their young children get the best possible start in life – and that tells you everything about ours."

The comments suggest the Lib Dems may have traded the school meals policy in exchange for the Tories getting their married couples' tax allowance through.

Tory backbencher Robert Halfon, who campaigned to make free meals available to those at further education colleges, wrote that the policy "would not have happened without Michael Gove".

He added: "It is up to all of, as Conservatives, to own this policy and shout about it from the rooftops."

Clegg also revealed that he had intervened in Duncan Smith's so-called bedroom tax plans to limit some of the unfairness highlighted by campaigners.

"This government is reviewing the bedroom tax and how it is being applied all the time. I spoke to Iain Duncan Smith about it just a few days ago," he told the BBC.

"It's why I intervened over the summer to significantly increase the pot of money in the discretionary housing payment to allow councils to help individuals and individual households who are caught out unfairly – sometimes that's how it feels, I think, to those households – as the system changes from one set of rules to another."

Clegg also looked ahead to future divisions with the Conservatives, in a comment which confirmed the party was looking to patch up holes in the public finances with tax rises on the wealthy, rather than just spending cuts.

"I think there’s going to be a mix, as there is now, between tax increases and spending cuts. How you balance those two things will be one of the battleground debates at the next election," he told Channel 5 News.

"Clearly, you should start – as we have done – at the top and work down, not the other way round."

Divisions were also present in Clegg's relations with Vince Cable, who was slapped down for raising the prospect of the coalition ending before the general election in 2015.

"This is first and foremost a decision for the leader. I am the leader of the party, I've made it very clear that to demonstrate that coalition government works, but also to demonstrate that we are doing the job of clearing up this monumental economic mess left us by Labour, we need the full five years," Clegg told the BBC.

Cable spent yesterday evening warning of the danger of the coalition's immigration policy, which has involved a crackdown on student numbers and a controversial appeal to anti-immigrant rhetoric via so-called 'racist vans'.

"The phrase illegal immigration is a kind of catch-all for things people are uncomfortable with in this immigration debate," Cable told a fringe event.

"We are dealing with an absolutely toxic public opinion [on immigration]. I think it's important that we keep calm and do nothing to inflame public opinion."

The business secretary said student numbers could "have been a great deal worse” if earlier Tory proposals had gone through.

"We have seen a fall in student numbers. If you had seen the earlier proposals, there would be none left," he said.

Cable's outspoken attacks have become a regular part of the Liberal Democrat conference, but the party leadership has taken a more light-hearted attitude to his comments this year, in a sign of Clegg's almost-complete dominance over the party.

Few at the party gathering in Glasgow believe Clegg faces any significant challenge before 2015 and is even likely to continue as deputy prime minister under a new government if no party wins a majority.