Nick Clegg’s speech contained all the verve and decisiveness we have come to expect from the Liberal Democrats.

He was late, for a start. Even more late than Ed Miliband, leaving Tim Farron to make a barefaced pitch for the leadership heartwarming address to the party faithful in the gap.

Unfortunately, the Lib Dem press office had sent out the full text of their leader’s speech beforehand under embargo, allowing delegates to read it in various news outlets while they waited for him to say it out loud.

Eventually, though, he got going. No personal surprises, no policy surprises – not even any costume surprises, after his dress-down performance earlier in the week.

In a way, this was classic Clegg. Not peak Clegg, as we saw during the 2010 leaders’ debates, rather a performance that played to the character voters are used to. Slightly forlorn – “say what you will about the Liberal Democrats”, he declared, no doubt aware that plenty of their former voters already do. An occasional twitch of passion, best displayed when he challenged Theresa May over the Snoopers’ Charter – a rebuke that earned him a warm reception from his audience in the room.

Those troughs and peaks aside, he was teetering on that traditional Lib Dem tightrope, offering what has become the same old differentiation.

“The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the Tories,” the Deputy Prime Minister declared – neglecting to mention that the final third of his equation is that they would tax more as a result, or that if he is lucky enough to return to coalition the best he could do is to try to make Labour borrow a little less or try to make the Tories cut not quite so much.

There was a token attempt to claim the government’s economic legacy – not for himself, but for Danny Alexander, whom he described as “the person responsible for the really tough job of repairing the damage to our public finances”. There is the inevitable contradiction: this is a party that wants to avoid the blame for any pain caused by austerity, but also wants the praise for being tough enough to see a painful plan through.

Any idea that government would force the Liberal Democrats to scrutinise and clarify their identity has gone. At once Clegg laid claim to popularity, to representing the mainstream ideas of millions, and also to sticking his neck out on what is right but disliked, for example in his debates with Nigel Farage over the EU.

Some would say he is forced into such awkward poses – a popular party of unpopular principle; an anti-cuts party which pursues tough cuts – by hi difficult electoral position, dangling between two increasingly distinct bigger parties of government. But this has always been the Lib Dem way; the contradictions are as much an expression of their split personality, baked in since the Liberal-SDP merger, as they are a strategic reaction to their third wheel status.

Ultimately, Clegg’s positioning gives away his weakness. He charged both Labour and the Conservatives with his view of their respective failings, but at best presented his party as a diluter of whichever might come most close to winning the election. If there’s a reason he looks and sounds as though he’s floating on the tide, that’s because he is. In four short years he’s gone from kingmaker to political flotsam – you have to question whether he wants to stick around to find out what will have become of him by 2019.

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