Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg wants to be back in government Reuters

Nick Clegg has delivered a make-or-break speech to his party faithful with the clearest possible plea for voters to push him through the growing gap between Labour and the Tories and back into a second coalition.

In a conference speech he knows could well be his last if his party is wiped out in next year's general election, he attempted to highlight the open ground between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, as set out in their conference speeches.

He painted Labour as the economy-wreckers who forgot the deficit and could not be trusted to run the country while the Tories were the party of the rich who would penalise the working poor while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

The Liberal Democrats, he claimed, was the party of "the head and the heart" who would deal with the deficit in a fair way and spread opportunity to every citizen.

He even risked Tory anger by revealing a private pre-budget conversation with George Osborne in which the chancellor slapped down calls for further cuts in income tax saying he did not want to deliver a Liberal Democrat budget.

As someone who has grown more, not less, impatient with the establishment during my time in office, I have realised that what the vested interests would relish most is to eject us from office before our time is up.
- Nick Clegg

"He insisted instead on the Tory bit of the Budget: a cut to the top rate of tax. I can't think of a better, simpler illustration of what sets the two coalition parties apart: Tories insisting on tax cuts for the few, Lib Dems insisting on tax cuts for the many," he said.

That breach of protocol may come back to haunt him if the Tories decide to respond in kind.

But he also insisted he was not about to walk out of the coalition government before polling day and, with Ukip exploiting the anti-politics feeling among voters, he even attempted to paint himself as the true anti-establishment leader.

"As someone who has grown more, not less, impatient with the establishment during my time in office, I have realised that what the vested interests would relish most is to eject us from office before our time is up.

"What disrupts those same vested interests most is seeing this government through. So, however tempting it might be, we should never play our opponents game," he said.

He announced two well-trailed policies, on increasing the tax threshold to £12,500 and putting mental health at the top of NHS priorities, but insisted the party also needed to "bang on and on" about the policies it had driven through in the coalition such as raising the tax threshold.

"I will not, no matter how much anyone goads me to do it, seek to distance us from the achievements of this government, because it would only play into the hands of those who say we should never have been in government at all," he said.

"I believe, despite the febrile, angry mood of our times, there are millions of our fellow citizens who still long for a politics of reason, of fairness and of decency."

David Cameron and Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg will not quit government Reuters

While the over-riding theme of the speech was to show the Liberal Democrats as fundamentally different from the other parties, there was also the underlying plea that the best option for Britain would be another coalition government.

And that has been at the centre of this final rally of the conference season. Ministers and delegates have trashed the other parties in one speech after another, while quietly hoping they will be back in government next year.

One event hanging over their chances, however, is the continuing anger and distrust over the broken promise on tuition fees that Clegg is painfully aware has not been forgotten, or forgiven.

Instead he again admitted to the "mistake" and urged voters to judge him on his record in power rather than past mistakes.

But his greatest fear is that voters will not be as forgiving or as ready to credit him with policies they like and will, come 7 May next year, seek to punish him in the ballot box.

And while the conference delegates were clearly buoyed up by his speech, there remains a deep anxiety running throughout this party that this time next year, they will be back to their darkest days as the forgotten party of British politics.