Jo Swinson has been accused of thinking 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit are “stupid”.
A BBC Question Time audience member who backs Brexit asked if the Liberal Democrats’ decision to revoke Article 50 and cancel leaving the European Union betrayed her thoughts about Leave supporters.
“Is revoking Article 50 confirming to 17.4 million people that you think we’re stupid and didn’t know what we were voting for?” the leaver asked.
Ms Swinson said: “We are being very straightforward as a party that we want to stop Brexit.
“You might agree with us, you might disagree with us, I don’t think you can accuse us of not being up front about wanting to stop Brexit.”
She added: “Not for one second do I think that that means that you or anybody like you is stupid.
“I think it means we disagree and I really want us to be in a situation in this country where we can disagree with each other... and that means that you want to Leave and I don’t think that makes you a bad person, and I want to remain in the EU and I hope you think that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
In the same exchange, another woman in the audience, a Remainer, said she would not support Ms Swinson and the Lib Dems because of the party’s promise to cancel leaving without even putting it to another referendum.
She said: “I am a passionate Remainer but the Liberal Democrats standing on a manifesto to unilaterally cancel Brexit and the electoral pact (with Remain candidates in some seats) has absolutely cost you my vote.
“The Liberal Democrat title is now a misnomer. How can you defend that decision?”
Fiona Bruce, hosting the Question Time special in Sheffield, said Ms Swinson had an “unhappy Leaver and an unhappy Remainer”.
Ms Swinson said the Lib Dems had led the fight for a “people’s vote” but Labour had not backed it, and said she was being honest about what would happen if she became Prime Minister.
Jo Swinson said she did not regret starting the campaign by insisting that she could become prime minister.
She said: “There is still three weeks left in this campaign, and all I would say to anybody that thinks that you can predict the outcome of the election in the middle of the campaign – ask Theresa May how that worked out last time around.”
In a combative session, the Lib Dem leader failed to rouse the audience, with many of her answers met with silence.
The hashtag #carcrash was trending on Twitter in the UK in relation to Ms Swinson’s performance on the show.