The Sketch: This is not just any old austerity, it's progressive austerity

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The Independent Online

Tall, slim, good looking, nicely spoken, polite, clean. Women are said to like him. Nick Clegg's the best leader they've had since Paddy Ashdown so it's hard to know why their poll rating is so down. But these conference speeches usually put on three or four points – if he gets five or six that'll put them back in the game.

There were a couple of passages where you could imagine people at home lifting themselves out of their sofa-doze. The list of events and scandals each ended with the refrain: "And only the Liberal Democrats said 'No!'" Iraq was in there, that sort of thing. It would have made Liberal Democrats proud to be Liberal Democrats.

There were also some quite stinging remarks about that nice young David Cameron (whom he really does resemble). There must be a reason for that.

And here's a good position: "We are replacing Labour as the progressive party!" Progressive politics means you can vote to take other people's property away from them and give it to yourself. I'm amazed the proposition doesn't sweep the electoral board. Especially when it's called "being fair". He spelled it out in one of his "I'll be honest with you" moments. If you've made a lot of money, if your house is worth £1m, "you will pay more".

Why this doesn't mobilise 98 per cent of our cash-strapped citizens against its wealthy 2 per cent is a mystery. Maybe they don't share Nick's optimism that he'll be the next prime minister. He sketched out the first day of a Liberal Democrat government. Imagination failed, I fear. Chris Huhne dominating his officials with his supernatural intelligence. Vince crushing bankers and their lobbyists by sheer integrity. Julia Goldsworthy halving her department's spending. Halving it!

Because they're not like the Conservatives, you see, they aren't offering "fake change". They are offering real change. And although "savage cuts" may or may not be on offer, he's not offering budget cuts ("Never again!"). No, he's offering something far more civilised: "Not just austerity but progressive austerity." That'll get them out to the polls in Sheffield. "Vote Lib Dem, vote for progressive austerity!"

Imagine these decent, idealistic, energetic people being drawn into the machinery of government and mangled. What will they look like after an encounter with power?

"I am never going to duck the important questions," he said, ducking the important question of what he'll do in the next parliament when they hold the balance of power. Oh, and abolishing tuition fees, that was ducked as well. Nonetheless: "Let today be the first day of the future of British politics!" It's a fine Lib Dem statement because it doesn't mean anything and day two of the future never comes.