Nick Clegg on Friday promised to give “comfort to the markets” as he opened the Liberal Democrat spring conference celebrating the “defection” of a disgruntled former Conservative MEP.

The Lib Dem leader rallied the party faithful for a “wide open election” fight on the first night of a conference in which he is expected to spell out further details of how to cut public spending.

He hailed the decision by Edward McMillan-Scott, the longest serving Tory MEP before his expulsion from the party, to join the Lib Dems as a sign that “people of principle” were abandoning the Tories.

Mr McMillan-Scott, the vice-president of the European parliament, fell out with his leadership after it withdrew from the European People’s party and formed a new group with MEPs “who have extremist pasts”.

The Tories insisted Mr McMillan-Scot’s move was no defection, saying he was “expelled from the Conservative party six months ago for breaking his election promises”. “He should feel quite at home with the Liberal Democrats,” it added.

As polls have narrowed, Mr Clegg has sought to be more explicit about his priorities in a hung parliament, while stressing that the political uncertainty would not prevent the deficit from being cut.

He insists there will be no “backroom deals” after the election and any Lib Dem support for a minority government will be based on four tests: cutting the deficit and tackling banking excess, fairer taxation, spending more to educate poor children and “cleaning up” politics.

But in an effort to calm market fears of political deadlock after the election, Mr Clegg has stressed that “fiscal responsibility” is his top priority. “During the general election campaign the Liberal Democrats will surprise people by emerging as the party with the most cogent and detailed response to the fiscal crisis,” Mr Clegg said in a Reuters interview. “I think that will give increasing comfort to the markets.”

Vince Cable, the Treasury spokesman, will reinforce the message on Saturday, telling delegates that the “growing worry about sovereign debt” meant there was “no hiding place” from the need to cut the deficit.

“It grates to have the economy held to ransom by currency speculators and the clowns in the rating agencies who …so badly misjudged the safety of banks,” Mr Cable will say. “But any government, of any hue, will have to depend on the markets to finance its deficit. We must and will be fiscally responsible.”

Mr Clegg is expected to provide more detail on close to £15bn of savings from squeezing middle class benefits, public sector pay and defence programmes. The bulk of the cuts will be used for deficit reduction.

“We need detail, we need to know where savings and cuts can start to be made,” he said. “Not that they necessarily need to be made on day one, but that there is a plan.”

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