The Sketch: In true Liberal style, Clegg got a very polite grilling

 

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A time-traveller arriving in Brighton from some palaeolithic political era – the mid-1990s, say – would surely feel that he had come to the wrong party. All the old Liberal cues have mutated. A few beards, of course, but scarcely a sandal in sight. No more self-effacing jokes urging delegates to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for local government". No more amendments to delete the word "sensible" from a motion promoting a "sensible economic policy". (No kidding; this actually happened in the old days.)

The party is now In Office, with all its standard trappings: a security ring of steel round the conference centre, real live ministers and unmistakeable rumblings about leadership.

Nick Clegg was his usual disarming self, of course, in a question-and-answer session which started inevitably with questions about his famous tuition fees apology, not why he had made it but why he hadn't made it two years ago. And which fully exposed the extent of his audience's distinctly Liberal unease about everything from public expenditure cuts to nuclear power and the threat to privacy in the new Communications Data bill.

And no, he didn't know whether the ancient woodlands to be displaced by the planned new High Speed Train could be replaced (a classic Liberal Democrat question this, one that shows that old habits die hard). Whether the activists were disarmed was less clear. His longest answer was to a complaint that Chief Secretary Danny Alexander was "more right wing than Peter Osborne" (he meant George).

Clegg was listened to politely as he warned that while it would be "wholly unrealistic" to promise no change to the welfare budget, he would stand firm against "wild suggestions that have been made by some on the right of British politics [presumably Osborne] that all the savings can be made from welfare".

At the end, the leader produced a shamelessly well-timed announcement that yesterday was his 12th wedding anniversary. Bizarrely it came in answer to a question of what he would do if the musical version of his apology, currently 143 in the iTunes chart, got to No 1. But it brought his warmest applause of the afternoon. But hardly for the first time, the Liberal Democrat conference was overshadowed by momentous events elsewhere. Specifically, Andrew Mitchell's struggle for survival.

If there is any truth in the biographical details relating to his schooldays, unleashed as the Tory Chief Whip's character comes under minute scrutiny, then he is fast emerging as the most aggressive old Rugbeian villain since Flashman.

Clegg suggested that Mitchell should be allowed to "draw a line" under the episode. But if it turns out that Mitchell, like his model from Tom Brown's Schooldays, was prone to scorching small boys by an open fire, he's done for.

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