Nick Clegg has blamed the "seeping fear" of the SNP for the Liberal Democrat wipeout at the general election and rejected the suggestion the party would have done better if he had quit as leader a year ago.
In his first interview since resigning as party leader on May 8, the former deputy prime minister said the first thing he did when he saw the exit poll putting the Lib Dems on just ten seats was "reach for a cigarette".
Clegg told LBC he initially believed the exit poll was wrong. In the end party did even worse and was reduced to just eight MPs.
However he insisted he did not regret "for one millisecond" take the Lib Dems into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. "I haven't destroyed my party," he said, pointing to a surge in membership applications since polling day.
Clegg said the public reaction to him personally over the last few weeks has been "incredibly generous" and suggested many people "regret" what happened. "They expected we would get a slap on the wrist, they didn't expect we would be thrown to the bottom of the stairs," he said.
A report in The Guardian this morning revealed Clegg told aides he was "very close" to quitting as party leader following the disastrous European and local election results in 2014.
But Clegg told LBC that he did not think that would have helped the party at the general election. "My own view is changing leader a year before the election wouldn't have made much difference to, for instance, whether we would have been able to withstand Scottish nationalism north of the border and people's fear south of the border of Alex Salmond pulling the strings of an Ed Miliband premiership," he said.
Analysing the election result which saw the Lib Dems lose 48 MPs, Clegg said: "This astonishing clean sweep for Scottish nationalism north of the border, with hindsight 20% of the Lib Dem parliamentary party was doomed before the starting gun was even fired. We were not in position to withstand that pincer movement.
"Maybe ten days before election day, all of us really felt this seeping fear in England of a Labour government dancing to the tune of the SNP really chilled the English heart. You could see lots of people who traditionally would have voted for the Lib Dems playing it safe ... to vote Conservative."
Clegg insisted he was "delighted" to have won his own Sheffield seat and rejected the suggestion he would rather have lost. "I've got no plans to disappear in a puff of smoke," he said. But he added he would take a decision whether to remain in the Commons "one parliament at a time".