Lib Dem conference: Paddy Ashdown says fees pledge opportunistic
The Lib Dems were "opportunistic" in pledging not to raise tuition fees before the last election, former leader Lord Ashdown has admitted.
Current leader Nick Clegg apologised last week for failing to keep to the promise while in government.
During a meeting at the party's annual conference, Lord Ashdown said the Lib Dems had to "put aside childish things" now they were in power.
But he added that Mr Clegg was the party's best leader for 100 years.
Before the 2010 general election, Mr Clegg and other leading Liberal Democrats signed a pledge to oppose all increases in tuition fees.
However, later that year, the leadership voted for plans to allow universities in England to charge up to £9,000, nearly three times the previous £3,200 limit.
In a fringe meeting at the Lib Dems' annual conference in Brighton, Lord Ashdown said: "Who can be surprised if, after 100 years out of government, we were a little opportunistic?"
A female member of the audience told Lord Ashdown: "It wasn't opportunism. It was the strong feeling of the majority of the party who voted for the policy."
He replied that, had the Lib Dems won a majority at the 2010 election, rather than coming third and having to rule in coalition, the pledge would have become government policy.
But, he added: "We knew there wasn't going to be a [parliamentary] majority... in coalition it wasn't something we were going to deliver on.
"The opportunism was to make more of that promise because we knew we were heading for a coalition."
However, Lord Ashdown, who was Lib Dem leader from 1988 to 1999, praised Mr Clegg for his "extraordinary grace under fire" as deputy prime minister.
Looking back at the history of the Lib Dems, and their predecessors - the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which merged in 1988 - he said: "[Mr Clegg] is the best party leader we've had for 100 years, myself included."
Lord Ashdown added that, if the Lib Dems maintained "discipline", they could increase their support at the next election, despite faring badly in recent opinion polls.
He criticised Labour, saying that, under Ed Miliband, it was "the most opportunistic opposition we have ever known".