Donald Macintyre's sketch: Ex-leader Nick Clegg looks more like leader the Lib Dems need

Clegg acted like a leader during the Lib Dem conference

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Indy Politics

Given Lord Ashcroft’s version of David Cameron’s version of why Lord Ashcroft didn’t get his “not insignificant” government job, Nick Clegg’s conference speech could have had a sensational climax: As in “yes, Liberal Democrats: I did block the Ashcroft job, just like I blocked all the other crackpot mean-spirited things the government is doing now we’re no longer in coalition.”  

Sadly this was not to be. Much as it would have rebounded to his credit if he had been the original cause of the billionaire bankroller’s X-certificate vendetta, the former party leader modestly disclaimed responsibility, suggesting in later interviews that Cameron may have used the deputy Prime Minister as an “alibi” for the Ashcroft non-appointment. 

Modestly too, he refused to  “absolve myself from my mistakes” but heaped  praise on his successor “the best campaigner I have ever come across”, “generous to a fault” a “liberal to his fingertips” who had bravely visited Calais to put a “human face” on the refugee statistics while Labour was imploding and “Tory ministers were reclining on sun loungers across Europe” 

But because Clegg was at his most impressively fired up in claiming that the Liberal Democrats were “now coming together to give the country the decent, liberal centre ground it so desperately needs,” you couldn’t help wondering if members packing the hall weren’t secretly thinking that the  “best possible man to lead that charge” was not in fact, as he insisted, “our new Leader Tim Farron”  but Clegg himself.

This lent poignancy to Clegg’s promise that “Tim……will get our undivided loyalty and support and support as he leads our fightback across the length of breadth of Britain. “ Well not quite undivided since the conference split over Trident with a number of ex-MPs calling for it to be totally scrapped— not what Farron wanted. “How can we have food banks when we are about to spend £100bn on a replacement system we will never use?” asked Tessa Munt during  a long and passionate debate. 

In the end they voted Farron’s way. Since Lib Dem fingers have never been further from the nuclear trigger, the sense of unreality recalled a famous fifties Liberal conference when the party was similarly starved of MPs and the chairman optimistically  told a hushed hall: “The eyes of the world are on us — I do not want to say anything which might exacerbate the situation in Quemoy and Matsu.”