Clegg's star in the ascendant
Clegg's star in the ascendant (Reuters)

It is an odd pitch for a political party leader to make to his members - stick with me so I can continue to come third.

But to all intents and purposes that is exactly the message Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg delivered to his annual party conference.

He means, of course, that by coming a good third, he will stop an outright victory by either of the two big parties and will again hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and remain deputy prime minister.

"In an ideal world, I wouldn't have to work with either of them because I'd be prime minister on my own thank you very much and I'd like to think I'd do a better job too," he said.

But he tacitly accepted that that was not about to happen. So his pitch was driven by his one aim: to get back into government. And he claimed not to mind too much which of the other two parties he had to share power with.

His big setpiece performance marked the culmination of what has been an undeniably successful week in Glasgow for him.

He easily saw off challenges to his authority over the direction of economic policy by business secretary Vince Cable, whose star will shine a good deal less brightly after this rally.

He pushed through some "responsible" policies on nuclear power and defence that have roved troublesome for the leadership, and he won full-hearted backing for his continuing role in supporting Chancellor George Osborne's austerity programme.

He even went so far as to claim that the recovery was down to his influence in government. "The recovery simply wouldn't be happening without us," he said.

In power

Clegg rejected suggestions that he would favour one party in government over another.

"I'm endlessly asked who I feel more comfortable with, David Cameron or Ed Miliband?" he said.

"But I don't look at Ed Miliband and David Cameron and ask myself who I'd be most comfortable with as if I was buying a new sofa.

His job was to get back into a coalition government in 2015 to stop Labour wrecking the economy or the Tories creating the wrong kind of recovery.

"The absolute worst thing to do would be to give the keys to Nor 10 to a single party. We're not here to prop up the two-party system, we're here to bring it down," he said.

Time and again he reminded delegates that their previous fantasies about being in government had become reality.

"I have talked to you before about our journey from the comforts of opposition to the realities of government, but not any more. We are a party of government now," he declared.

As part of his determination to keep "equidistant" from the two big parties he had a series of lists. One listed the things his ministers had achieved in government, including fair pensions and cutting income tax, and one listed things he had stopped the Tories doing, including giving inheritance tax relief to millionaires and making it easier to sack workers.

He even suggested that he had a blank list of things he would stop Labour doing - if only he knew what any of its policies were.

This was not the first time he had delivered the message to Lib Dems that they had to come to terms with the fact that they were now "in power".

But this time it was clear that his party was more ready to listen than at any time since the creation of the coalition in 2010.

"Every day we are showing that we can govern, and govern well," he said. "That pluralism works. And if we can do this again, in government again in 2015, we are a step closer to breaking the two party mould for good."

And most of his troops left the Glasgow rally apparently united behind his leadership and his desire to be the Third Man.


Tories Facing Campaigning Crisis as Members Desert Cameron

Nick Clegg Speech: Liberal Democrat Moves to Claim the Caring Label Enrages Tories