Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Wednesday, 17 September 2008 12:55 UK

Clegg's first effort pleases party

By Reeta Chakrabarti
BBC News political correspondent

Nick Clegg
Mr Clegg dared to mention the 'G' word: government

Spare a moment of sympathy for the Lib Dems.

Their conference has been going on while the main political interest has been solidly focused elsewhere.

The Lib Dems, more than the two bigger parties, rely on conference to raise their profile.

With the media fixated on the question of Gordon Brown's future, it has been a harder task than usual this year.

And yet Nick Clegg has reason to be pleased.

This week he got a party more used to campaigning for tax-and-spend rises to agree to precisely the opposite.

The Lib Dems are now, thanks to him, the party of spending and tax cuts, a move he hopes will help not just in Tory marginals but in Labour ones too, as it is low and middle earners who would benefit.

The core of his speech was the party's economic package.

Haven't a clue

Mr Clegg clearly feels he has stolen a march on the Conservatives by having plans that are relatively detailed (although he has not yet identified the bulk of the spending cuts), and which have a strong redistributive message.

Labour he characterises as a busted flush, finished and - in fact, dead. A "zombie government", he called them - a "cross between Shaun of the Dead and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue".

Strong stuff - but Mr Clegg is calculating that in certain constituencies voters who want Labour out will have to vote Lib Dem.

Daring too were a couple of references to the party being in government.

Lib Dem leaders have tended to shy away from any direct reference to power since David Steel was so mocked after telling his activists in 1981 to return to their constituencies and prepare for government.

Eyebrows raised

Nick Clegg was more subtle: "I can tell you where we're headed. Government."

Sober heads within the party will no doubt have raised an eyebrow at that.

It has not all been plain-sailing this week. An inability to remember what the weekly state pension is in a TV interview resulted in Mr Clegg getting it wildly wrong - 30, rather than the 90.70 it is for a single person.

He dealt with by putting his hands up and saying he had got it "spectacularly wrong".

Short on the personal

But Labour was quick to leap on the error and - presumably - will not let him forget.

Interestingly his speech was big on ideas and on bashing the opposition, but short on the personal story.

This was Mr Clegg's first conference speech as party leader, and members could be forgiven for feeling they still do not quite know who he is, or what drives him.

Aides have ensured that his face is everywhere - on the conference agenda, on badges and mugs - but if there has been a cult going on, it has been that of Vince Cable.

The Treasury spokesman and deputy leader, with his mild manner and unexpected wit, has been drawing the crowds in the conference hall and on the fringe all week.

Does he still harbour leadership ambitions? Happily for Mr Clegg the question is neither here nor there this year - the party seems settled for a while, relieved not to be engulfed in such speculation.

The audience enjoyed his bashing of opponents and seemed pleased enough overall, giving him a warm ovation.

Such events are managed, of course, to present the leader in the best light, and those listening gave him his due.

Now comes the hard bit - a return to real life, and the battle for attention.

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