Westcountry peer Lord Paddy Ashdown has claimed the Liberal Democrats will enjoy an election "dividend" from being in coalition with the Tories, despite fears the party faces oblivion.
The former Yeovil MP also admitted his party was "opportunistic" in pledging not to raise tuition fees before the last election, a policy promise leader Nick Clegg last week apologised for not keeping.
Lord Ashdown, the former party leader who was instrumental in building the party's powerbase in the South West, cautioned delegates against reading too much into the Lib Dems' dire position in the polls.
He argued commentators are "talking nonsense" if they extrapolate polling midway through a Parliamentary session – the next general election is in 2015 – "let alone if you are in Government; let alone if you are doing difficult things".
Addressing activists during a fringe meeting at the party's Brighton conference, Lord Ashdown defended the party's tie-up with the Tories, arguing that policies Lib Dems should be proud of are being implemented, notably ensuring workers earning less than £10,000 do not pay income tax.
He said: "There's no point being a liberal if you're going to be a furry little herbivore at the margins of British politics thinking up good ideas. You need to be in government, exercising government informed by liberal principles. That's what we are doing."
He went on: "If we hold this course with a steady determination, and if we see this country through the worst crisis caused by Labour in very large measure, then we will get the dividend. I'm very confident of that."
The Lib Dems hold three Parliamentary seats in Cornwall, two in Devon, four in Somerset and one in Dorset, and are in second place to the Tories in almost all the Westcountry constituencies they do not control.
Lord Ashdown said being in power means the Lib Dems will "never be the same party again", adding: "I think it will be easier to make progress in Tory seats in the next election than we will in Labour seats."
Current leader Nick Clegg apologised last week for failing to keep to the tuition fees promise while in government.
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 the fringe meeting, 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."
He criticised Labour, saying that, under Ed Miliband, it was "the most opportunistic opposition we have ever known".