OPINION: Clegg's speech fails to go down a storm

The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Liverpool was a strange affair. After leader Nick Clegg's messy week over Europe, he was going to have to sell himself as a bit of a maverick; stick up for his beliefs, refuse to sign up to identity card schemes, be nonchalant and keep the party faithful united.

Channel 4 didn't send anyone to cover it, not one camera. BBC and ITV dispatched minimal staff. Some TV stations even debated whether or not to show the speech live, considering the impending wind and rain that evening far more interesting.

A TV producer covering the 'event' in Liverpool was amused by the conference briefing he was given - the itinerary was very precise. At 12.03 hours: 'Conference director to take fresh glass of water to lectern' (process to take two minutes and 30 seconds).

At 12.05 hours: 'The voice of God announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg."' Given that it was a struggle to get Sky News to take the speech live, getting 'the man upstairs' to do his intro was ambitious.

At the end of the speech, scheduled for 12.45 hours, an aide had written, 'Accept applause' and in brackets added, '1 minute?'. One minute? It seems that not even the Clegg faithful were anticipating any more than 60 seconds of liberal abandon.

During the speech, he seemed nervous at first, but perked up after clocking how good his hair looked in a camera at the side of the stage.

There was the now obligatory reference to a family member's hard times - his mother was a Japanese POW. There is a lot of this about at the moment, what with Boris Johnson revealing that his great-great grandmother was a Circassian slave. All this competition to see who has the dampest sob story is reminiscent of the Monty Python 'You think you had it tough' sketch. Next Alistair Darling will claim: 'We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank.'

There were some comparisons made to David Cameron when Clegg tentatively strayed from the lectern, but the Tories were far too busy dealing with alcopops to be concerned. 'The price of a Bacardi Breezer is more of a threat to society than Clegg's amateur dramatics,' said one.

The Lib Dems know that Clegg is 'the best we've got'. A former Lib Dem press officer said: 'When (Charles) Kennedy spoke, even through a drink-addled fug, you felt the audience liked him and he liked them. There doesn't seem to be the same sense of fondness for Clegg.'

Tara Hamilton-Miller was part of the press team at Conservative Campaign HQ from 2001 to 2006. She is now a political adviser.

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