As rallying cries go, "Stick with us" lacks a certain something. But that's how the Liberal Democrats roll and so it was that Nick Clegg was forced - or believed himself forced - to deliver a disappointingly defensive speech to the party's annual conference this afternoon.
Perhaps that's what he needed to do. This was Operation Reassure Sensitive, Confused, Liberals. This being so it wasn't quite the valiant proclamation of Orange Book liberalism I'd have wanted to see*. Nevertheless, there were times when Clegg was unecessarily defensive, even about being in government. Rather than challenge his party, Clegg played nice. Perhaps this too was necessary but it left one noting the difference between Clegg's boldness in government and a certain timidity in Liverpool today.
So the speech was not quite one thing nor the other. It doesn't help that Clegg's style of speaking is not designed for a large hall; he's evidently best in smaller, more intimate settings and, alas, looks small and even mildly glib in these conference settings. One didn't get the impression that he was enjoying the speech.
Perhaps that's because it wasn't quite sure if it was apologising for the government or making the case for the coalition. Most of the time Clegg offered rhetorical comfort to his party's sandal-munchers; most of the time they looked as though they weren't buying it. Indeed, one could not avoid the suspicion that, actually, many of these Liberal Democrats would prefer to still be in opposition.
Maybe this was the most sensible way for Clegg to play his hand today. His party may not be ready for what he - surely - wants to do to it. So, in the end, this was a mild let-down: Clegg pandered to his left-wing this afternoon. At some point he may need to take them on.
*Then again, I'm not the intended audience. And nor are most of you.