Sketch: Offish Clegg treated activists like a used tissue

This felt like the deputy prime minister dealing with a pack of very predictable journalists, not a party leader sweet-talking his supporters. Is power going to Nick Clegg's head?

By Alex Stevenson in Birmingham

Q&A sessions are a part of what makes the Liberal Democrat conference special, we're told. None of the other parties bother with this rather odd charade, in which the town hall format comes to the conference floor and the leader fields questions from the awkward squad. They raised tricky questions on controversial issues including tuition fees, high speed rail and Nadine Dorries.

Clegg, who had presumably shed his tie to appear more approachable, didn't look like he wanted to be there. He emerged on to the stage to the usual applause, but found himself in an uncertain position. The conference stared at him expectantly. He stared back. "Is someone asking a question?" he asked, hopefully.

Ah, yes! That was how this worked. And so it began. Clegg tried hard to be animated. He gets thoroughly worked up very easily, now, almost on cue. "I'd love to be prime minister!" he said at high pitch. "But for that people would have had to vote for a Liberal Democrat government, and they didn't!"

There did not seem to be a natural bond between the leader and his followers. He treated them gingerly, like someone in a public toilet forced to deal with a used tissue. "There's a man gesticulating wildly," he observed placidly at one enthusiast. Another was rebuked for sitting down and talking to someone, immediately after asking a question. "Chris, do you want to listen?" Clegg said, half-saddened, half-chastening. "I don't want to be head masterly, but…"

Lib Dems are not accustomed to being treated like this. One individual, from Banbury, wasn't keen on high speed rail. Clegg pointed out that he might not be keen. He didn't want to suggest the activist had a "vested interest". "I'm just genuinely interested," the deputy prime minister said, wriggling. "Are you affected by it?" The party member shot back: "I'm asking you the question." Awkward! Clegg quickly retreated into his shell.

Another delegate facing Clegg's veiled barbs had wondered whether the deputy PM was a bit embarrassed, or even a bit ashamed, to be working with David Cameron, given Cameron's treatment of interns. Clegg was dismissive. "We're the head of completely different parties," he said, sounding frustrated. And then: "It's not for me, or even for you…" That was a bit unpleasant, wasn't it?

Much of this session was disappointing for all concerned: there was little atmosphere in the soulless conference hall, not much charm on show. Its real significance came towards the end when Clegg, perhaps himself frustrated by this lack of zing, went into full-on lecture mode.

"We've had a really tough year, but we've got to stop beating ourselves up about it," he urged. It had the air of a resigned appeal to reason which despairing couples always make to end an argument. "A political party that doesn't look forward always ends up going backwards… we've got to look ahead – not constantly, mournfully, backwards."

This session didn't help Clegg in his bid to keep his party facing the right direction. The tensions continue to slowly simmer away in Birmingham.