Speeches at political conferences often fall flat, and the irritating hullabaloo that usually surrounds the speech of a party leader on these occasions usually makes me feel somehow cheated.
Who really cares if there were eight standing ovations from a party for its leader, or even twelve? It always strikes me as false anyway. I remember Paddy Ashdown coming off stage at a rally which had ended with fireworks and balloons and much razzmatazz and wryly muttering that it only needed elephants to make it into a circus. Yet sometimes a leader's speech can indeed be significant. David Cameron's speech in the Autumn of 2007 that made Gordon Brown recalculate his electoral prospects- a recalculation that seems to have acquired terminal significance after Brown was dubbed a "bottler", for example. Strangely, although much more low key, Nick Clegg may have done something similar over the weekend.
It was not just Clegg's new hairstyle, a much more distinctive crew cut, that marked out this speech as a new direction. It was also the integrated policy approach: it was the integration of a whole new set of policies. Under Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats have gained much needed economic credibility, but Clegg also managed to draw a radical thread through the Liberal Democrat programme. He laid out once unthinkable policies, such as nationalisation of the Banks, but he also demonstrated why such policies were not only quite sensible, but actually necessary. The programme he outlined was measured and practical. It sounded like a programme for power.
We have now just over one year until the most likely election date.
The electoral system requires a substantial lead in votes - roughly 10%- before the Conservatives can gain a bare majority in the House of Commons. The polls remain volatile. It is by no means impossible that the Liberal Democrats actually do better than their showing in 2005. Under such circumstances, the chances of either Labour or Tory gaining a majority fall substantially.
We are not there yet- but then a lot can happen in 15 months. What Nick Clegg showed in his speech was not only a distinct appetite for the fight, but a clear idea of what the Liberal Democrats would do if given an opportunity for power. I suspect that far from being squeezed and written off, the Liberal Democrats may enter the last year of this Parliament in a much stronger position than any of the last three years.
After having been ignored and derided by our political opponents, the significance and substance of Cleggs' speech is the credibility which he clearly believes that the party has gained.
That could prove to be very significant, very soon.