Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has appointed a five-person team to prepare for coalition negotiations if next year's election produces a hung parliament, the party has confirmed.
The move came after reports that David Cameron is privately considering ruling out a coalition and promising to rule at the head of a minority administration if the Conservatives fail to secure an overall majority.
Mr Clegg's hopes of retaining a share in power after 2015 despite the Lib Dems' single-figure poll ratings were boosted by a survey which suggested that a growing number of voters believe Britain is better off with a coalition - though a clear majority still disagree.
Some 34% of those questioned by pollsters ComRes for The Independent said they thought the UK was better off with a coalition government than it would have been if either Labour or the Conservatives had won the 2010 election outright, against 54% who disagreed. The number favouring coalition was up from 29% in July 2013, when 57% preferred single-party rule.
Mr Clegg told a meeting of Lib Dem MPs last night that Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander will head a team to prepare for talks with other parties if the election fails to produce a decisive result. Also in the team are Schools Minister David Laws, who is in charge of writing the Lib Dem manifesto, Lib Dem peer Baroness Brinton, International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone and Pensions Minister Steve Webb.
Mr Clegg said: "The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election as a strong, independent party. Though, like last time, we do not take any outcome of the next election for granted and so we want to be prepared for any eventuality. By preparing well, we will ensure that the Liberal Democrat Party is best placed to deliver a stronger economy in a fairer society in whichever circumstances we find ourselves in."
He declared: "The worst outcome next year would be either a Conservative or Labour-only government - because only the Lib Dems can anchor the country in the centre ground."