Nick Clegg should not face a leadership challenge despite a “staggeringly disappointing” European election result, party president Tim Farron has insisted.
The Lib Dems “paid the price” for the decision to fight a strongly pro-European campaign, he said, as the party narrowly avoided a wipeout in the contest.
But Mr Farron said Mr Clegg, who is facing calls from some activists including general election candidates to step down, should be praised for having the “backbone” to take an unpopular position over the EU and confront Ukip’s “threat to British cultural values.”
Mr Clegg’s future was already being questioned by MPs as would-be MPs in target Westminster seats joined voices urging him to fall on his sword over the dismal performances.
Mr Farron told Sky News: “Britain is a diverse country, it is a country where we stand up for civil liberties, it is a country where we recognise that our national interests are in being part of the European Union.
“Someone has to have the backbone to stand up and say that. It looks like we may have paid the price but I would do it all again.
“Being unpopular is not the same as being out of touch. We understand what the British people think and we understand that on this issue we’ve taken the unpopular side of an argument.”
Being in coalition with the Conservatives had also cost the party seats, he said, but he insisted that it had been right to put the national interest before the party’s.
Mr Clegg has insisted he is staying despite the party losing more than 250 councillors in local elections and being humiliated in the European elections.
But Martin Tod, a member of the party’s federal executive, told the BBC that voters would not back Mr Clegg: “What seems to be clear coming out of this is that they are not prepared to listen to our leader and that’s a really serious problem.
“It’s a problem that I think we need to address.
“You can’t lose all of your MEPs bar one and pretend that nothing has happened, that your strategy is perfect and you just need to carry on as you are and carry on delivering the leaflets and saying what we said in our leaflets this year and everything will be fine.”
But Cabinet minister Danny Alexander said he was “as concerned by these results” as Mr Tod but “I don’t think plunging the party into a period of introspection is the right answer to that.”
Catherine Bearder, the Liberal Democrat’s only MEP returned so far, remained loyal to her party leader and said Mr Clegg had been right to go out and campaign on a positive EU platform.
She told Sky News: “It’s been very difficult. We are in government so there is always a chance to squeeze and that happens in politics.
“We fought a very good, positive campaign on our issues of being in the European Union and standing up for Britain in the European Union.
“I’m very proud of the campaign we fought here and I’m proud I shall be going back to continue my work on the envrionment and stopping the trafficking of human beings.”
Ms Bearder denied that Mr Clegg or the EU as a whole had proved unpopular on the doorstep, but added: “People don’t understand how the European Union works and they don’t think it is important to their daily lives.
“It is, and we need to be spelling that out for the next five years to make sure people when they are asked again to vote for the European Union know how important it is to their daily lives.
“We were the only party to come out of the blocks and actually take on Ukip. It’s not been easy... but tonight I’m back and I shall carry on the work of the Lib Dems.”
Southport MP John Pugh suggested that a dozen of his Commons colleagues had expressed doubts over whether Mr Clegg should continue at the head of the party.
Mr Pugh told the Sunday Times that an internal “post-mortem” of the poor night at the polls - which saw the party almost or entirely wiped out in some former strongholds - “has to include a truly open, mature and balanced look at our whole strategy, including the leadership issue.”
Colleague Adrian Sanders, who represents Torbay, said: “The problem is the messenger, very few people say it’s the message.”
Ex-MP Sandra Gidley - one of around 250 people to have signed an online letter demanding a change of leader - said Mr Clegg was tainted by his position in the Tory-led coalition.
“What we need over the next year is somebody to lead the party who is credible, who has questioned the coalition in the past, not seen to be in a love-in with David Cameron and has the confidence of the party,” she told Murnaghan.
Defeated South West MEP Sir Graham Watson dismissed those calling for Mr Clegg’s head as “a few marginal voices” and insisted: “I believe the Liberal Democrats will be back at the general election and I certainly don’t believe the party is finished.”
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I don’t think anybody seriously questions his leadership of the party.”
Ms Gidley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Personally I do think we need to change things at the top, I think that the Lib Dem brand is now toxic.
“Unfortunately, Nick did a brilliant job leading us through the last election and he was very determined with what he wanted to do when it came to the coalition, but I don’t think we’ve handled the coalition well.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague declined to comment on whether Mr Clegg could remain Deputy Prime Minister if he is ousted as Liberal Democrat leader but insisted that Tories remained “determined” to continue in coalition right up to the general election.
He stressed that the Conservatives’ coalition was with the Liberal Democrat party as a whole, not just with its leader.
Asked about Mr Clegg’s position, Mr Hague told Sky News: “I am really not going to get into speculation. It is up to the Liberal Democrats.
“We are in coalition with the whole Liberal Democrat party and the economic achievements that we are bringing about in this country are the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats working together in a coalition.
“We are all determined that is going to continue to the end of the Parliament.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell told Today: “I haven’t come wearing a black tie and with a funereal voice. There’s no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg is the person with the courage and the resilience to take the party through to and during, and indeed after, the next general election.
“I think there’s a serious risk from people like Sandra Gidley of us dipping into six weeks, or perhaps even three months, of damaging introspection.
“What happened in this election, particularly on the European side, is that the debate about Europe began and the person who began that debate was Nick Clegg making the case for Europe, when Labour were seeking to ignore Ukip and the Conservatives were unwilling to engage with them.
“That is a distinctive, and in my view wholly justified, position and one which I hope we will go on advocating.”
Sir Menzies said the results at a local and European level were “disappointing”, but urged the party not to panic. He said that only 200 people had signed the letter, out of 44,000 members of the party.
“People are saying ‘Oh dear’, but what you have to do is not panic,” he said.
“Of course there’s disappointment, but we’ve had disappointments in the past and what do you do? You go back to pounding the pavements, you go back to building up your strength in the way which we know best, by utilising the enormous competence and commitment which Liberal Democrats have locally.”
Ukip leader Nigel Farage predicted that Mr Clegg would be ousted before next year’s general election.
Mr Farage told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Nick Clegg’s position clearly is very vulnerable indeed. I’d be very surprised if he led the Lib Dems into the next election.
“They have gone down to one seat and they’ve been beaten by the Greens in a national election, so I don’t think the Lib Dems will stick with that.”