24/09/2012 12:50 BST | Updated 24/09/2012 13:01 BST

Lord Ashdown Admits Lib Dems Were 'Opportunistic' With Tuition Fees Promise

BRIGHTON - The Liberal Democrats were "opportunistic" in promising not to raise tuition fees, the party's former leader Paddy Ashdown has admitted.

Speaking to an audience of activists in Brighton on Monday afternoon, Lord Ashdown said the party knew there was not going to be a majority Lib Dem government in 2010 and should not have made a promise it knew it could not keep.

"Who can be surprised if, after 100 years out of government, we were a little opportunistic?" he said. "We knew there was not going to be a Lib Dem government".

"The opportunism doesn't come from putting forwards a policy that doesn't make sense, it did ... the opportunism was to make more of that promise because we knew we were heading for a coalition."

The Lib Dems have been using their conference in Brighton to try and move on from the tuition fees row, and apology, by setting out their stall as the party of fair taxation.

In both public and private Lib Dem figures have been pointing out that while it was a pre-election promise, the tuition fees pledge was not one of the four key 'front page' commitments on its manifesto.

Ashdown said that now the party had had a taste of government it had to "put aside the childish things of opposition" and could not behave like "cosy, furry little herbivores".

He urged Lib Dems to "hold the course" with Nick Clegg who he said was the best the party had had in 100 years - including himself.

"If you're leader you have to do difficult things," he said. "Do I love the Tories? No, I hate the Tories. Is it comfortable? No. Would it be comfortable with Labour? No."

Ashdown also told Lib Dems they could no longer campaign as they had in the past, by presenting different messages to voters depending on whether they were fighting the Tories or Labour for the seat.

"Now we have been in government if we tried that we would be carved up," he said. "we have to present a unified message across the country".

His words echo the message of other senior Lib Dems who are banking on the public crediting them with at least being a serious party of government, if not one that is ideologically pure as it once could claim to be.

Amid rumours that the party is putting out feelers to Labour with a view to forming a coalition with them after the 2015 election, Ashdown acknowledged it would be "deadly dangerous" for the voters to come to view the Lib Dems as happy to work with anyone as long as it kept them in power.

"Always the bridesmaid never the bride," he noted. "Yes there is [a danger] if we don't stand for anything."

Ashdown also urged his fellow Lib Dems to ignore the polls and the press, taking particular exception to The Guardian for describing him as a "strangely sexually alluring walnut"