Clegg fears Ukip or SNP influence
Nick Clegg has warned against allowing a "rag tag mob" of MPs from Ukip or the SNP to hold the balance of power after the general election, insisting the Liberal Democrats were the only party able to form part of a government that would stand up for modern Britain.
The Liberal Democrat leader, who declared his party was "here to stay" despite opinion polls indicating he will lose dozens of MPs on May 7, said the election was a fight for the "decent values of our country".
The Deputy Prime Minister's message to activists came as a row developed between two of the party's most popular figures over the Lib Dems' record in office.
Paddy Ashdown publicly slapped down former party president Tim Farron - seen as a potential successor to Mr Clegg - for criticising their achievements in coalition.
Former leader Lord Ashdown, chairman of the Lib Dems' 2015 election campaign, indicated Mr Farron's ambitions will be better served with a "little more patience and a little more judgement".
In recent newspaper interviews Mr Farron has suggested the Lib Dems should be rated "two out of 10" for their part in the coalition and warned that the party could suffer for a generation as a result of the decision to go into government with the Conservatives.
Lord Ashdown told BBC Radio 5 Live: "Tim's a very able guy but at the moment judgment is not his strong suit."
Aides to Mr Clegg insisted that Mr Farron had always been loyal, and the pair had shaken hands during a chance meeting before the leader's speech in Liverpool.
The Lib Dem leader used his keynote address to make a pitch for the party to retain a share of power after the election, insisting only the Lib Dems would "govern for the whole country".
Mr Clegg ruled out being part of a formal coalition deal involving either the SNP or Ukip, although sources would not reject the idea of those parties being involved in a looser confidence and supply arrangement.
In his last major speech to the party before the general election, Mr Clegg said the single-figure opinion poll ratings did not reflect the picture in battleground seats where the Lib Dems were able to mount an effective campaign.
He also launched a fresh attack on his Conservative coalition colleagues, saying "cows moo, dogs bark and Tories cut - it's in their DNA".
Accusing them of an "ideological lurch to the right", he said: "They have gone from being the self-proclaimed heirs to Blair to Nigel Farage in white tie."
Labour's plans would cost £70 billion, he said as he mocked Ed Miliband's "pledge card".
He said: "It's not a pledge card, it's a credit card. And you, me and every other British taxpayer will be paying the bill for years to come."
Mr Clegg told the party's spring conference: "If we want to remain an open, confident, outward-looking society, it will only happen if political parties who believe in compassion and tolerance step up to the plate.
"Instead, the opposite is happening. Labour and the Conservatives are deserting the centre ground."
With pollsters predicting a hung parliament, Mr Clegg warned that David Cameron or Mr Miliband could find themselves forced to pander to the SNP or Ukip.
"What will Britain become if Cameron's Conservatives or Miliband's Labour spend the next five years begging for votes from that rag tag mob of nationalists, populists and special interests?
"Not one of them will stand up for the moderate majority.
"Not one of them will keep Britain united."
The Deputy Prime Minister said: "Just like we would not put Ukip in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain - a country they want to rip apart. It's just not going to happen."
He insisted: "Only the Liberal Democrats will keep Britain on track and govern for the whole country.
"We have shown that we are prepared to put the national interest first, even if it means taking a hit to our short-term popularity."
The Lib Dems will "stand up for tolerance, decency and fairness", he said, adding: "Britain is an open minded, open hearted, generous country. Britain needs people who will defend those values now more than ever."
Highlighting the Lib Dems' record in office, he said: "By sticking to the sensible and fair approach to balancing the books that we have pursued in Government, we can end the era of cuts.
"We can end austerity in three years' time. And once we have, as the economy grows, we can invest again in our public services and in the modern infrastructure - the roads, railways and houses - that we need to flourish in the 21st century.
"We can make life a little bit easier for millions of working people by continuing to cut their tax, just as we have done every year in this Government.
"We can spread opportunity to a new generation by protecting and investing in education."
In a rallying cry to activists, who will be expected to knock on thousands of doors over the coming weeks, Mr Clegg said: "I have a message for all those who are writing us off once again: the Liberal Democrats are here to stay.
"I've heard the predictions. I've seen the polls. But let me tell you this: we will do so much better than anyone thinks."
After his speech Mr Clegg joined wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez on the floor of the conference hall.
Ms Gonzalez Durantez's Venus dress in bubblegum pink was coordinated to the colour of Mr Clegg's tie.
SNP MSP Christian Allard said: "We will take no lessons from a party that was on the same side as Ukip and other extreme right-wing elements in the independence referendum.
"As the Lib Dems teeter on the brink of electoral oblivion, their desperation is palpable. After five years in government propping up the toxic Tories, all Nick Clegg and his party have to show is a trail of broken promises. On austerity, tuition fees, Trident renewal, Lords reform, and the NHS, they have backtracked and abandoned their principles.
"Trust in the Lib Dems is at rock bottom - tens of thousands of former Lib Dem voters have already moved to the SNP, with many more now also intending to vote SNP at the general election.
"Unlike the Lib Dems, we have made clear we would never prop up a Tory government. It's no wonder the people of Scotland see the SNP as the party to make sure the things that matter to them are firmly on the Westminster agenda."