Sketch: Bruised Lib Dems have no choice but to applaud

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Clegg is typically a wooden speaker.
Clegg is typically a wooden speaker.

After the usual Lib Dem flim-flammery - desperate fundraising and a video showing ministers scratching their heads ("didn't spend much money on that" was one caustic delegate's comment) - the man himself entered. Nick Clegg began his speech with praise towards Maurice Reeves, the 81-year-old gent whose furniture store had been burned down by rioters last summer. "It takes time, perseverance, resilience" - these were the moral messages Clegg wanted to convey to his audience. Stick it out, he was urging them. To emphasise the point he was quick to switch from gentle pleading (the usual tone) to a hectoring shout. "Be in no doubt," he pleaded. "IF we secure our country's future WE WILL SECURE OUR OW-N."

It felt a little unexpected, that. After several years of reporting on Clegg's speeches I have learned the perils of criticising him for having put in especially lacklustre performances: he is always wooden. He waves his arms around like a scarecrow. He trips up over tricky phrases like "wracking up record debts". He makes truly awful jokes. "To make blue go green, you have to add yell-ow!" This last was delivered in the tone of one addressing a three-year-old. Delegates applauded and laughed at this, as if it was genuinely funny. It was not, and Clegg knew it. He muttered something about them being a "generous audience". When the leader's embarrassed by his own gags - well, that's saying something.

The Liberal Democrats are in a fix, and they know it. Being in government is about being forced to make difficult decisions and becoming deeply unpopular as a result. Yet they are enjoying the challenge, in their own grim way, because it continues to be a refreshing break from perpetual opposition, and ultimately because they don't have any choice. Lib Dems are quick to move when they sense the moment is right to oust their leader. All know that moment is not going to come for some time.

This is why Vince Cable has spent the summer positioning himself so that, when that moment eventually comes, he can take over the mantle. He had been given a position of real prominence, seated just in front of Clegg. His party leader would have been able to see him out of the corner of his eye, squinting up at him quizzically, throughout. So when Clegg came to the section about the future for his party, he made the most of it. "I know there are some in the party - some in this hall, even - who, faced with several more years of spending restraint, would rather turn back than press on." At "some in this hall, even", Cable's head gave an uncontrollable jerk to the right. He couldn't look his leader in the eye. Those sorts of involuntary twitches are as telling as a coded newspaper interview. They mark out Cable as a man with a guilty conscience. Clegg may chuckle over this moment later.

He will also reflect on the fact that it was not he who got the biggest cheer of the speech. That honour belonged to former leader Paddy Ashdown, the crinkly veteran much beloved by all present who has been persuaded to chair the Lib Dems' 2015 general election campaign. The prolonged acclamation which greeted this news was far warmer than anything enjoyed by Clegg - at least until he wrapped up, of course. Then came the usual ovation, until eventually all that could be seen of the leader was a waving hand lost in a scrum of photographers and cameramen. I couldn't help feeling this was not one of Clegg's better endings. "That's the prize - so let's go for it!" This was the sort of thing the golf pro used to say to me before I braved the links. And that never worked out well.

There is no deep passion for Clegg among Liberal Democrats any more. He inspires neither undying loyalty nor seething hatred in them. Instead they are becoming as jaded and toughened up by life in government as he is. Just as he is playing a long game, so are they. The jury's out," one of them told me about Clegg before the speech. Afterwards, there was no point talking to them. Despite their mood, the choreographed leader's set-piece had worked its magic once again.

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