Clegg pulls a surprising victory from the jaws of mediocrity

Ian Dunt

Well it wasn't half as bad as I thought. My earlier prediction of Clegg's conference speech turned out to be pessimistic. I've never been terribly good at these things.

Well, we all bear our crosses. Clegg's is that he'll never make a great public speaker. He can't do passion. The tail-end of his crescendos tend to quiver and give up, as if he doesn't have confidence in the sentence. He can't do comedy either. His timing is all over the place. Between those two extremes, he's passable at best.

But the content itself was actually very good. The sections on the damage Lib Dems have taken was admirably – and necessarily – frank, although the paragraphs on tuition fees were much less of a 'mea culpa' than they first appeared. Clegg's argument was that the public was too stupid to understand that students would only pay back the fees after they started earning a certain amount. He's wrong. The public understood perfectly, just as they understood he'd signed a pledge not to vote for a rise in fees. It wasn't a PR problem. It was a matter of principle and of the suspicions people have about politicians, which often exist for very good and empirical reasons.

The advance extracts were the worst parts of the speech – a sure sign that the victories here came in sections that the press office found most questionable. The paragraphs on summer schools and riots were particularly terrible. But the strongest part featured a point he merely touched on: that the Lib Dems have a dual role in government – "to hold our coalition partners back and… to move the government forwards".

It’s this sort of specific, tactical approach to the achievements of government that will settle Lib Dem hearts. By being outspoken about the tactics and requirements in his new role, he implicitly keeps the Tories at arm's length and reassures his own party that any sacrifices being made are for concrete, clearly-understood reasons – not because they're being played by superior tacticians in Downing Street. This short sentence accomplished more than all the Huhne and Cable speeches attacking their coalition partners combined.

For the political geeks among us (basically you, if you’re reading this) the most interesting aspect was probably his relentless attack on Labour, including the line "never, ever trust Labour with our economy again". Clegg did the same thing with Gordon Brown before the 2010 election. He has a habit of burning his bridges in a way that is entirely alien to the Lib Dems who want the party to maintain "equidistance" from the Tories and Labour in case of a future hung parliament.

Has he gambled against Miliband staying leader, or is his heart simply on the right? Either way, the prospect of a Lib-Lab pact seems terribly remote while he's leader.