Wealthy pensioners should be stripped of universal benefits such as free bus passes and winter fuel payments before the next general election, Nick Clegg has suggested.
The Deputy Prime Minister sparked confusion by indicating that he wanted to consider scrapping the handouts as part of the coalition's final spending review - even though it would breach the power-sharing agreement with the Tories.
The Liberal Democrat position was muddled further when one of Mr Clegg's closest allies, David Laws, admitted he was sceptical about the idea because it would not raise much money.
The developments came on a difficult day for the leadership at the party's conference in Brighton.
In a series of interviews, Mr Clegg reiterated his determination that the rich will bear the brunt of an estimated £16 billion of extra cuts needed in 2015-16 to meet the coalition's deficit reduction targets.
Stressing the Lib Dems' commitment to "fairness", he again criticised David Cameron for blocking the introduction of a 'mansion tax' on properties worth more than £2 million.
And he suggested wealthy pensioners' handouts should also be cut to help balance the books - another move the Prime Minister is believed to oppose.
While initially saying he would stand by the pledge in the coalition agreement to maintain such universal benefits, Mr Clegg said: "My own view is that all parties will need to confront the simple irony, which is that we are giving free bus passes and TV licences and winter fuel payments to (entrepreneurs) Alan Sugar and Peter Stringfellow, while limiting housing benefit to families on much lower incomes.
"I do not think that is sustainable in the long term. I will take my choice as the Liberal Democrat party leader."
Pressed on whether he wanted curbs on universal benefits included in the coalition's last spending review - which comes into force a month before the 2015 general election - Mr Clegg replied: "As I say, 2015-16 is something we will need to decide upon during this parliament."