Under-fire Ukip leader Paul Nuttall appeared to cry as he asked party members if they backed him – and was answered with a standing ovation.
Mr Nuttall has faced a fierce backlash and calls to resign as an MEP after it emerged claims that he lost close personal friends at Hillsborough are false.
But the embattled would-be MP, who is trying to unseat Labour in the Stoke Central by-election, struck a defiant tone and vowed to fight on.
However, mobbed by press reporters as he left the stage at Ukip’s party conference in Bolton, he refused to answer questions about Hillsborough.
Mr Nuttall told the conference that he accepts the blame for the false claim, made on his website, that he lost close friends in the footballing tragedy.
But he hit out at the “smear campaign” against him after doubts were cast over whether he was actually at the 1989 crush, in which 96 people lost their lives.
He said: “Many people will notice that I’ve had a bit of a difficult week.
“This is two-fold, actually. Firstly, I take the blame for the fact that I failed to check what was up on my website in my name, that was my fault and I apologise.
“But I will not apologise for what is a coordinated, cruel and almost evil smear campaign that has been directed at me.
“It is based on lies from sources who have not been named. It has been a tough week for me but I will not allow them to break me and I will not allow them to break Ukip.”
Looking up at the audience, he said: “I was also asked by two journalists yesterday if I still have the support of my party.”
His words were met with a standing ovation and large cheers for the party faithful as one man in the crowd shouted “take that”.
Taking his glasses off and wiping a tear from his eye, Mr Nuttall said: “Thank you, I’m a bit overwhelmed. Thank you.”
But the Ukip leader refused to answer further questions about the footballing tragedy when he left the stage.
Escorted by security guards through a scrum of reporters, he refused to say anything about comments made by millionaire Ukip donor Arron Banks, who has said he is “sick to death of hearing” about Hillsborough, and accused some of “milking” the tragedy.
Mr Nuttall said simply: “I’ve said absolutely everything I have got to say on the subject”, adding: “I was at Hillsborough, I’ve got witness statements.”
In his speech to the party faithful, Mr Nuttall laid out his vision for Ukip – pledging to cut foreign aid, slash taxes and pump more money into health and housing.
He promised to take domestic energy bills and hot food out of VAT – a move he said will make traditional British dinner fish and chips “cheap as chips again”.
Mr Nuttall said the backlash he has encountered running in Stoke Central is a sign Ukip has got Labour “on the run”.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership “have nothing in common with the working class communities they traditionally represent”, Mr Nuttall said.
He added: “I am more confident than ever that Ukip will eventually replace the Labour Party as the voice of the patriotic working class.”