Nick Clegg scored 10 out of 10 for ambition in Bournemouth, and top marks for avoiding the trap set by David Cameron. But he needs to learn a thing or two about party management. Here's today's Journal column.
And so we come again to the conference season, and not just any old conference season, but the one which will see the race to govern Britain for the next five years effectively begin in earnest.
Most of the country will see it as a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories, but once a year, at their annual conference, the Liberal Democrats get the opportunity to explain why this cosy consensus should be broken up.
Whether Nick Clegg and his party made the most of that opportunity, amid a week of bickering and backbiting in Bournemouth, must be very much open to question.
But one thing you certainly can’t fault is the scope of his ambition. “I want to be Prime Minister because I have spent half my lifetime imagining a better society, and I want to spend the next half making it happen,” he told the gathering on Wednesday.
Lib Dem leaders have been somewhat wary of talking too openly about the prospects of power ever since David Steel’s infamous “go back to you constituencies and prepare for government” speech at his party’s 1981 conference in Llandudno.
The best they’ve been able to hope for since those heady days has been to hold the balance of power, although as yet, it has never actually happened.
But Mr Clegg, to give him his due, was not going to be bounced by Tory leader David Cameron into talking about which of the two main parties he would back in the event of a hung Parliament.
If the Lib Dem conference represents his one chance a year to say what he would do I the unlikely event of him actually becoming Prime Minister, he was going to make sure he took it.
Mr Cameron’s eve-of-conference “love bomb” urging the Lib Dems to team up with the Tories in a grand anti-Labour coalition was an extremely mischievous intervention by the Tory leader on a number of levels.
For one thing, his claim that there is “not a cigarette paper” between the two parties on key issues of policy is about as mendacious and misleading a claim as he has ever made – and that’s saying something.
As the Lib Dems’ chief of staff Danny Alexander swiftly pointed out, while the Tories want to reduce inheritance tax for the richest 1pc of people in the country, the Lib Dems want to take the poorest out of income tax altogether.
And for all Mr Cameron’s supposed “greenery,” his party’s representatives in Europe have allied themselves with a bunch of climate change deniers in the European Parliament.
But Mr Cameron’s suggestion was mischievous on another level too, because he knows perfectly well that there is only one thing the Lib Dems actually could do in the event of a hung Parliament – and that is support the Tories.
This is not just because it would be political suicide for Mr Clegg to be propping up a Labour government that had just lost its majority. It is about simple electoral arithmetic.
Such is the inbuilt bias of the electoral system towards Labour, that so long as Labour achieves the largest share of the vote, it is bound to have an absolute majority in the next House of Commons.
Therefore the only way in which a hung Parliament can actually occur is if the Tories are ahead on share of the vote, but by not quite enough to form a government on their own.
In those circumstances, the Liberal Democrats would really have only course of action consistent with their advocacy of a “fair” voting system – and that would be to support the Tories as the party with the biggest share of the vote.
Mr Cameron knows this, and so does Mr Clegg – which is why he is all the more determined not to admit it. To do so would remove any reason for voting Lib Dem at all
That said, post-Bournemouth, the country is really no clearer on what the reasons for voting Lib Dem actually are.
The arguments over university tuition fees and the proposed imposition of a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £1m have hardly served to clarify the party’s message.
Charles Kennedy’s strategy in his time as Lib Dem leader was to have two or three distinctive policies that would separate his party from the common herd – for instance, abolishing tuition fees.
It was not surprising to see the man who led the Lib Dems to the best performance by a third party since the 1920s bemoaning the loss of some of those policies this week
Mr Clegg may be right that different times demand different solutions – but his problem he has yet to find anything as distinctive to put in their place.
As for his talk of “savage cuts” or “progressive austerity” - yet another abuse of the p-word – this is hardly a very different agenda from that being put forward by the two main parties.
Nor surprisingly, media attention has already shifted towards Labour’s conference in Brighton beginning tomorrow.
Yesterday’s revelations that the mole behind the MPs’ expenses scandal was motivated by the lack of resources for British troops in Afghanistan links two of the three big running political stories of the year.
Meanwhile the third big story – the future of Gordon Brown – will continue to rumble on in the background at Brighton, with the party hoping against hope that their leader will manage to spell out some sort of compelling vision for a Labour fourth term.
If Mr Clegg’s task last week was to explain why he should become Prime Minister, Mr Brown’s even harder one this week will be to explain why on earth he should remain so.