Further benefit cuts must be balanced by extra taxes on the rich, Nick Clegg has said as he sought to bolster his leadership at the start of a potentially difficult Liberal Democrat party conference.
The Deputy Prime Minister put "fairer" taxation at the heart of the party's message at the Brighton gathering which opens - and signalled he would make higher levies on wealth a condition of accepting further Tory-led cuts.
Amid rumblings over his position, poor party and personal opinion ratings and discontent with the coalition, Mr Clegg also insisted he intended to lead the party into and beyond the 2015 general election, accusing critics of losing their nerve.
He launched a staunch defence of his decision to issue a frank apology for the party's broken pledge not to raise student fees - which he said would be appreciated by "reasonable people" despite being widely lampooned. And he stoked coalition tensions over environmental policy, declaring "mixed signals" were inhibiting economic growth as Liberal Democrat Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander complained of a Conservative "constant war of attrition".
In an interview with The Independent, Mr Clegg ruled out the two-year blanket freeze on state benefits reportedly being considered by the Treasury in a bid to rein in spending amid continued poor economic figures.
"I have seen that mooted. It is not on the cards," he insisted in a bid to reassure party activists. And while further savings in the welfare bill were inevitable as the Government struggled to balance the books, the Liberal Democrats would not allow them to reach the £10 billion sought by Chancellor George Osborne, he said.
"The Conservatives appear to be saying they want it all to fall on welfare. That's totally unacceptable to me. They are not going to take all of that £10 billion out of welfare. I am not saying you can leave welfare untouched because it is a third of total public spending. But the idea that you ask welfare to take all of the strain is something I will not allow to happen."
In his first appearance at the conference - which has the slogan "fairer tax in tough times" - Mr Clegg will urge party members at an evening rally to help revive the party's popularity by delivering three million leaflets.
"I want to reward people who put in a proper shift, not those who sit on a fortune. People for whom a bonus means a few extra quid at Christmas not a million pound windfall," he will tell the rally. "It is no secret that we have different priorities to our coalition partners, I can do my bit around the Cabinet table, but most of the seats at that table are occupied by Conservatives, not Liberal Democrats. So I need you to do your bit the old fashioned way: getting out there and campaigning."
As he prepared to confront party discontent, Mr Clegg said speculation over his position was inevitable but that he considered it proof that he was doing the right thing. He told the newspaper: "The worst thing to do when are on a difficult political journey is to lose your nerve and bale out. This is why I am determined to lead the party through the journey - from the beginning, middle to end."