Clegg promises 'a heart' for Tories
Nick Clegg has staked the Liberal Democrats' claim to remain in government by promising that his party would give "a heart" to Conservatives and "a brain" to Labour in coalition.
Launching the party's manifesto for the May 7 General Election, the Deputy Prime Minister urged voters to return enough Lib Dem MPs to act as an "insurance policy" against either major party being held to ransom by Ukip or the Scottish National Party.
Meanwhile, Ukip's Nigel Farage declared "we want our country back" as he unveiled a manifesto demanding an early referendum on EU membership, radical cuts in immigration, substantial increases to defence spending and a package of income tax giveaways worth £18 billion.
With each acknowledging they will not win power alone, the last two national party manifestos to be released were not so much programmes for office as pitches to exert influence over whoever seeks to form a government in the hung parliament which is widely expected to result from next month's poll.
On the front page of their manifesto, Liberal Democrats listed five key policies which Mr Clegg made clear would be "red lines" in negotiations and would be fought for "tooth and nail" in any coalition government.
He said the policies - balancing the national budget in a fair way; guaranteed education funding "from cradle to college"; an increase to £12,500 in the income tax personal allowance; an £8 billion hike in NHS funding; and five green laws to protect the environment - could be summed up in the single word "Opportunity".
Meanwhile, Mr Farage made clear he will put pressure on David Cameron to bring forward the in/out EU referendum he has promised for 2017, dismissing the Prime Minister's plan to seek reform of the UK's membership ahead of the poll on the grounds that there was "no renegotiation of any value that is to be had in Brussels".
Ukip would not contemplate any deal to prop up Conservatives without "a full, free and fair referendum on our membership of the European Union, not a pro-EU government-led stitch-up", he said.
Launching the manifesto at a south London art gallery, in front of a montage of multi-coloured handprints, Mr Clegg said that the presence in numbers of Lib Dem MPs in the new House of Commons would help prevent a future government "lurching" to right or left under the influence of Ukip or the SNP.
"Someone is going to hold the balance of power on May 8 and it won't be David Cameron or Ed Miliband," said the Lib Dem leader. "But it could be Nigel Farage. It could be Alex Salmond. Or it could be me and the Liberal Democrats.
"So ask yourself this: Do you want Nigel Farage walking through the door of No 10? Do you want Alex Salmond sat at the cabinet table? Or do you want the Liberal Democrats?
"The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government and we will add a brain to a Labour one."
The Lib Dem manifesto was "a plan to finish the job of balancing the books, and to do so fairly by protecting our schools, hospitals and public services", he said.
Mr Farage said Ukip was offering a "low-tax revolution" with an £18 billion package of income tax reductions, including raising the personal allowance to at least £13,000 and the 40p threshold to £55,000 and introducing a new 30p rate on earnings between £45,300 and £55,000. He pledged to abolish inheritance tax and ensure at least 2% of national income was spent on defence.
Addressing supporters in the key Ukip target seat of Thurrock, in Essex, the Ukip leader said: "We are the only party standing in this General Election saying we want a trade deal with Europe, we want to be good neighbours with our European friends, but we desperately seek a referendum so that we can set this country free from political union.
"There is no third way. There is no renegotiation of any value that is to be had in Brussels. Our position is perfectly clear - we want our country back."
Mr Farage denied reports he had been in formal talks with Tories over a post-election deal, insisting he would not be "putting out feelers" until after the May 7 poll. But asked if he might have had informal discussions, he replied: "If I meet people in a social environment, I'm a gregarious cove and I generally speak to them."
Chancellor George Osborne said a vote for either Lib Dems or Ukip would pave the way for Labour to form the next government, which would result in "job losses and cuts to family incomes".
Mr Osborne said: "A vote for any of the alternatives to the Conservatives is a vote for that Ed Miliband government and their economic chaos.
"So I say let's stick with David Cameron's strong leadership and the plan that's working."
Labour shadow cabinet member Jon Trickett said: "Ukip have confirmed that they are a party which stands for a privileged few. Their manifesto backs another tax break for those at the top and they will hold the Tories' feet to the fire in delivering their extreme spending plans, which will threaten the NHS and put living standards at risk."