It was Nick Clegg’s one unexpected masterstroke especially on the eve of the Clacton by-election: pronouncing Nigel Farage’s name in French! As in Farrrrhage. From the back of the throat. This carried the heavy freight of the Ukip leader’s (albeit distant) Huguenot ancestry. “Farage is of immigrant stock,” was surely the undoubted subtext. Forget about Tony Blair’s famous glottal stop. Never has the uvular fricative been used to such deadly effect!
The rest of the speech, while his most passionate at a conference yet, was not quite so inspired, even if it was received with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Even ecstatic in a few cases, a mood which Liberal Democrats unusually express by semi-ululating, as a few occasionally did from the gallery.
He took risks though. One was to reveal a deep coalition secret. When the Lib Dems were arguing for raising the income-tax threshold – a policy later stolen by the Tories – “George Osborne turned to me and said: ‘I don’t want to deliver a Liberal Democrat Budget’. He insisted instead on a cut to the top rate of tax. I can’t think of a better, simpler illustration of what sets the two coalition parties apart.”
Or for that matter of the relative powerlessness of the Lib Dems of the time, since they voted for the top rate cut, and have no stated plans to reverse it. Or of Clegg’s task today of steering a perilous course of justifying five years of coalition while attacking the Conservatives with new ferocity – “brazen self-interest”; “Big Brother state”; “No wonder they’ve stopped claiming that we’re all in it together”. (They haven’t actually – Osborne used the phrase last week. Brazen indeed.)
Which Clegg did by explaining all the marvellous things the Lib Dems did in the Coalition. “How will you judge us?” he asked. “By the one policy we couldn’t deliver in government, or by the countless policies we did deliver?” A clever formulation, glossing over those they didn’t stop, like the bedroom tax. He attacked Labour with equal ferocity, of course, while at the same time pledging to fight the “politics of blame and grievance”.
Clegg talked of “powerlessness” at one point, saying, in a mini-orgy of abstraction, that it was “the enemy of opportunity”. He was speaking of the need to allow everyone to fulfil their potential. But as a sentence, this was either totally meaningless, or a subliminal warning to his party that unless it does much better than the polls suggest, there might not even be a glad confident coalition morning again.