By Alex Stevenson
Redistributing public money already spent on helping political parties could prove the key to ending Westminster's deadlock over party funding, Nick Clegg hopes.
The deputy prime minister is seeking agreement to reallocate existing taxpayers' spending when talks between the three parties recommence after the Easter break.
Mr Clegg has ruled out spending more money on politicians in the current age of austerity. The committee on standards in public life had recommended an extra £23 million of funding to make up the funding shortfall resulting from a cap on donations by individuals of £10,000.
But the Independent newspaper is reporting his enthusiasm for compensating parties by taking money already used for parties.
It suggested the leader of the Liberal Democrats, which would lose the least from a donations cap, is looking at cutting the £19 million spending threshold permitted for each party in the year before a general election.
Other already-paid-for spending includes £2 million on policy development grants, £7 million for opposition parties and £28 million spent on the two freepost mailouts each candidate gets at elections.
A Clegg ally was quoted as saying: "He is not prejudging the talks and wants everything on the table. But he believes there is a deal to be done and recent events have shown the need to sort it out as a matter of urgency."
Party funding is a hot topic at present after the cash-for-access scandal exposed former Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas offering meetings with the prime minister in exchange for donations to the Tory party.
Mr Clegg hopes the resulting furore, which led to him bringing forward the latest round of talks on party funding, will give greater impetus to calls for reform.
Former chief secretary to the Treasury David Laws, Ed Miliband's PPS John Denham and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude will represent the Lib Dems, Labour and Conservatives respectively in the negotiations.
The public appears to have reacted negatively to the cash-for-access scandal. Polling by Tory donor Lord Ashcroft found 49% believed the Conservative party is the "most likely to give donors a say over its policies in return for large donations", compared to 27% for Labour and five per cent for the Liberal Democrats.
Writing on the ConservativeHome website, Lord Ashcroft said the polling numbers were "pretty galling" - but noted that "there is no benefit of the doubt on offer from the public".
"When party funding raises its head, voters do not think we are in any position to make accusations about our opponents, however right we may think we are (and may in fact be)," he wrote.
"The Conservatives must continue to be honest and transparent in their funding arrangements, and at all costs avoid repeating silly mistakes that suggest corruption where none exists."
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By Alex Stevenson