Sketch: Clegg’s gameshow delivery was as clichéd as ever

He is a politician for the TV era. But unlike many gameshow hosts whose ratings are falling, Nick Clegg still has one of the best gigs in town.

By Alex Stevenson in Birmingham

Now that the Liberal Democrats are in government the character of their conference has changed. It is more corporate, more big business. Its fringe events are more likely to be about tax regulation than electoral reform, about helping small businesses rather than saving whales.

Yet some things never change. This is a party that refuses to shell out the copyright payments for proper music. Its tinned, generic background music, deployed as Nick Clegg strode out to deliver his second conference speech as a Cabinet minister, helped reassure the audience that some things never change.

For this speech Clegg, who is viewed a long way from his party's grassroots in political terms, was placed in the middle of them, his podium surrounded by supporters squinting in the bright lights. The positioning may have been because strategists wanted to prevent him making a bid for freedom halfway through. Or it may have been because the spinners wanted to demonstrate that he is one of them. Working with the Tories, yes, but still a Liberal Democrat. Honest.

He did not bound on to the stage with a spring in his step, like a jaunty stand-up (that sort of work is left to the likes of Tim Farron and Sarah Teather). Instead he plodded on looking rather embarrassed. He let the party know why in his first few lines. "We've lost support, we've lost councillors, and we lost a referendum." Ouch! He was speaking very slowly, to emphasise how miserable this all was to him. The party watched him, silently.

Clegg soon got going, notching up the first of his 28 rounds of applause (I counted) with something about the liberal spirit. He delivered most of his speech carefully and methodically, like someone who feels confident of the theory and is now tentatively putting it into practice. But there were some moments of passion, which you could tell was his intention because of all the shouting.

I was particularly struck by the way he said the word "agonisingly", scrunching up his face for the first syllable without any word coming out. Looking back, it felt like his face was frozen in this manner for maybe three or four seconds. But perhaps I am misremembering it.

Clegg's delivery is just a little too mechanical, a little too staged. The sad smile of regret as he laments those who don't get his tuition fees policy. The nod to the person in the audience he's referencing – so clichéd! Did the Lib Dems find their leader by looking through archive footage of 1980s gameshows?

Still, the Liberal Democrats love a trier. They especially love someone who isn't an establishment figure. "We are in nobody's pocket!" he said in what speechwriters had indicated beforehand would be the key paragraph. They applauded, and applauded, and kept on applauding. Clegg, who seemed in a hurry, shushed them. "I get it, you agree with that," he said, ad libbing fearlessly. What box office coolness! A low murmur of appreciation rippled around.

It was not all applause, of course. Looking at a copy of the speech in front of me, I thoroughly expected him to go for a round of applause after a line on the NHS. Oddly, he didn't, downplaying the delivery and moving swiftly on. Perhaps he does have some skill at recognising the sore spots, after all.

After wrapping up with a very neat little morsel or two about the future there came the usual frenzied applause, the media scrum, the waving arm emerging from somewhere in the middle of it all. The whole hall stood to applaud. Or did it? Looking around, I could see rows and rows of empty seats where there was simply nobody to stand up.

Perhaps these were the chairs whose occupants lost their seats in May's local elections. They are gone, and many will never return. For some of those who rose to applaud this time last year, Clegg's words today have come far too late.

Right now that didn't matter. The time had come for plaudits and praise. And in the centre of it all, the delighted smile of a man playing his part as best he can. When it comes to tonight's primetime television – and what else really matters, in modern politics? – he will be the star.