Analysis: Clegg’s survival mission starts here

Nick Clegg's survival mission starts here. His pitch is not about values or policies, but about the value of coalition: a concept as tarnished as it is associated with the deputy PM.

This is what his aides call a "combative and passionate speech". It's not as personal as last year. It doesn't try to be anything other than what it is: a pitch for five more years in power.

The flagship policy on mental health, announced overnight, is all very well. It is a popular policy, one the party can get behind, and the Lib Dems win points for getting there first. But this morning – both in the alcohol-addled small hours and during their hungover-addled breakfasts – activists have been wondering whether it is really distinctive enough to win back support.

For the Liberal Democrats need more than just attractive policies. They know they have stretched the basic rules of the relationship between politician and voter beyond breaking point. An apology was never going to be enough to fix the damage caused by tuition fees. Even if it was, the logic of coalition has proved too much for the British to stomach.

Clegg addresses this with a section reaffirming the Lib Dems' status as an anti-establishment party. It is true his reforms have been thwarted by vested interests, but the idea that voters will continue to reward them the status of an anti-mainstream party is simply unrealistic. "Politicians of every party have fed this growing cynicism by exaggerating and overstating what governments can do. We've all done it, I've been there." This is not going to help matters.

Clegg's brazen ambition to continue governing regardless of who he has to do it with has already been rejected by the public. Most Lib Dems know this, although only some will actually admit it. Their minds are already looking well beyond 2015. They expect to lose half their seats in 2015 and they expect Clegg will have to stand down as a result. "Now's not the time for this," one senior figure in the party put it, "but we do need to start thinking what it means to be a Liberal Democrat now".

This moment of inward-looking existential crisis is already being pencilled into Lib Dem diaries. They have a job to do next year but can't help their minds dwelling on what's to come. This agonising has been building for a decade, ever since the Orange Book confirmed an ideological schism at the heart of the party's elastic ideology. When Clegg departs, the time will finally have arrived for Lib Dems to confront it. And the scale of the challenge will be in direct proportion to the electoral wipeout that comes next year: it may be they must find a way to regenerate that matches New Labour's revivifying achievement.

Clegg's speech does nothing to address this. It is a staunch last stand of what most Lib Dem voters know is the indefensible. Coalition is again defended near the end of the speech, when Clegg ties its logic closely with that of ensuring the economic recovery. He goes further, though, by rebutting a minority view within the party – not one I've heard voiced in Glasgow all week – that the Lib Dems should walk away from the Tories before next May "I'm immensely proud of what we've achieved," he says. The Lib Dems have a long list of achievements in power. Their problem is the Tories take all the credit, and they take all the blame.

One way the Liberal Democrats could try and fix the problems of 2010 might be to offer 'red lines' – especially fervent promises which, if not met by Labour or the Tories in the event of a hung parliament, would become dealbreakers. These aren't happening. Clegg doesn't mention red lines in these speech. He rolls out the old "endless speculation" dismissal which saved him so well in the run-up to 2010. "People do have a right to know what our priorities are," he concedes. It is not really enough.

And it's this failure to understand the hostility towards coalition in the mind of the average voter which explains the absence of any real regret and remorse. It's not clear that he's offering a vision for the future that goes beyond perpetuating his own career. He is not necessarily being selfish, for the party would not necessarily do any better with someone else in the job. It would undermine the whole claim that coalition works – a point the Lib Dems are bloody-minded about. In Glasgow they have talked about the "price" they must pay for being in government. Clegg's rhetoric is aimed at reducing that price; what his speech triggers is an inevitable speculation about what comes afterwards.