Leading article: A moment for the Liberal Democrats to re-establish their own identity

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There was a telling vignette at Prime Minster's Questions this week when David Cameron dropped some of his papers on the floor and did not have time to retrieve them all. Once upon a time, there would have been an eager beaver Nick Clegg at his side, only too keen to get on to the floor to assist the Prime Minister. On this occasion, however, Mr Clegg did not move.

The Deputy Prime Minister is a changed man, for public purposes at least, since losing the referendum on the Alternative Vote after being personally targeted by the Conservative-dominated No campaign. No longer is he Cameron's "willing helper", nodding in agreement as the Prime Minister speaks.

Putting daylight between his party and the Conservatives is not just a matter of body language, as our interview with Mr Clegg on today's front page shows. His strong words about the 50p tax rate, the strongest he has uttered so far on the subject, are about more than the rights and wrongs of taxation policy. They are his way of signalling to George Osborne and other Tories who want to be rid of the 50p rate that they cannot take him for a patsy. His remarks on house-building as a means of injecting life into a sagging economy, while they do not conflict with government policy, at least make him sound different from the Tories.

All this will please the Liberal Democrat delegates as they assemble in Birmingham for their annual conference, which starts today. Many of them have reservations about being in coalition with the Conservatives at all, made all the stronger by grim opinion polls. After the beating the party took in the local elections in May, distancing themselves a little from the Conservatives cannot make their electoral prospects any worse and surely must improve them.

But Mr Clegg has a difficult line to walk. Annual conferences are notorious for exposing areas of a party which it would be wiser to keep out of the voters' sight. Liberal Democrat annual conferences used to be renowned as a week's outing for the "brown rice and sandals" brigade who delighted in holding well-meaning but quirky debates on subjects far removed from most people's everyday concerns. And the fondness for passing resolutions that do more for public entertainment than they do for the party's credibility has not completely gone away.

Tomorrow, delegates will debate an old conference favourite – a resolution which proposes, among other well-meant ideas, that cannabis should be bought and sold legally in the UK, in a "regulated" market, naturally, while remaining illegal in the rest of the world. Once the criminals have smuggled the stuff across the Channel, honest traders will take over, one hopes.

It is a valuable role often fulfilled by the Liberal Democrats to pick up on causes which the two main parties consider too embarrassing or difficult to handle, provided they do not do it in a way that makes them look silly.

There are many reasons why Britain needs a strong and distinct Liberal Democrat Party. Nick Clegg is wise to have shed some of the excessive enthusiasm with which he entered the Coalition. But the whole point of going into the Coalition was to persuade people to take the Liberal Democrats seriously – which means no frolics in Birmingham.

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