Nick Clegg's mocked, reviled and admired mea culpa is the clearest sign possible that he intends to remain leader until the next election, and will put his leadership front and centre at the party conference starting on Saturday.
Whether the tuition fee broadcast, and its viral derivatives, proves a cathartic moment that persuades the electorate to shed its sullen distrust of Clegg, or instead proves to be the episode that tips his leadership towards satire and ridicule, only time, possibly months, and many opinion polls, will tell.
But Clegg's leadership has never been marked by an aversion to risk taking, and he clearly calculated he had nothing to lose from joining the modern trend to confessional politics.
Some of his aides argued through the summer it would have been better to let sleeping dogs lie.
But Clegg, based on his own face to face meetings with the electorate, felt the dogs were far from asleep. The issue of tuition fees was snapping and snarling at his heels whenever he tried to explain what he had done in office, or to set out the next steps of his unpredictable political journey.
He says he came to this view not owing to polling or calculation, but intuition. He had to address the distrust.
In his Prospect essay The Hardest Word, James Crabtree argues that a political apology has to be memorable, but its timing is also vital. In Clegg's case the timing was probably right.
It is only recently that the electorate have been prepared to have him on their doorstep. If the apology had been attempted in the brutal six months after the tuition fees debacle or the AV referendum he would have been ever more derided.
Crabtree, in his essay, was broadly supportive of the apology, quoting the sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis, who said: "An apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done.
And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, that is precisely what it manages to do."
Crabtree argued an effective politician will also realise that contrition is a continuing process, not a single act – "most importantly, you've got to say it like you mean it: the public will quickly see through a purely tactical approach".
Clegg's aides, of course, insist the apology was strategic, not tactical.
Yet there are problems. Clegg is not apologising for breaking the pledge, but for making it in the first place. He also insisted, possibly unwisely, that the pledge "was made with the best of intentions".
The difficulty here is that the pledge given to the National Union of Students not to vote for any increase in tuition fees in the coming parliament was in truth a pretty grubby act designed to garner some student votes. Many senior party figures opposed it as such at the time.
Moreover, in March 2010, a month before he toured the university campuses signing the pledge to abolish tuition fees, his private team preparing for coalition negotiations had recognised they were "ideologically isolated on the issue", and few of their ambitions could be met.
Lofty words were spoken by Clegg at the manifesto launch on how every pledge, including the one to phase out tuition fees over six years, had been costed.
He said: "There is one other major innovation in this manifesto. We have scrutinised public spending line by line, and found the savings we need to pay for all of our priorities as Vince [Cable] explained …
"I believe this is the first time a political party has spelled out its figures, line by line, right there in its manifesto. Turn to page 100. The figures are there for everyone to see. We know how every policy will be paid for. These are promises you can trust …"
But on the BBC's Newsnight on Wednesday Cable said he had always been personally sceptical about the affordability of the pledge, adding that "it was an unwise commitment to have made".
Clegg promises that in future he will do more to distinguish between the pledges that are non-negotiable and those that may have to be jettisoned in coalition horse-trading. He advises other parties to think in the same terms.
Now none of this is a war crime. It is hardly a shock to discover that politicians say things to garner votes.
But the sense of let-down about Clegg is so heartfelt because so many believed on the basis of the TV debates and election broadcasts that he was a different kind of politician.
Clegg's apology is deeply heartfelt. He did not believe in the party's fee abolition policy at the time, and kicks himself for letting it happen.
He did try to have the policy overturned, but was rebuffed by his conference. It was a failure of leadership by him.
He is now determined to use the episode to show his party has matured and will not play such cheap politics ever again.
At the conference most Liberal Democrats will rally to his cause and describe his decision as brave. Talk of a threat to his leadership is at least a year premature.
Support for the concept of coalition remains resilient, despite the polls, even though there will be discussion of how the two coalition parties behave towards to one another, and also how and when the two parties disentangle.
In the short term, the focus will be on the mid-term review, the paper setting out the priorities of the two parties in the second half of the parliament, something Clegg and Cameron discussed at the beginning of the week.
Lord Greaves, a veteran of the left, writing in Liberator, the magazine of the Liberal left, argued the party would have to be clearer earlier about how it would disentangle itself from the Conservatives. It will be a point of strong debate on the fringe.
But the key debate at the party conference in Brighton will be on the economy, the issue that has been the glue keeping the two coalition parties together, and that, according to Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes, should determine the voters' verdict in 2015.
The Social Liberal Forum, probably the most effective pressure group inside the party, has been creeping towards breaking with Osborne's Plan A, and on Monday the issue will finally come to the floor of the conference when some delegates will press for the party to break out of the confines of Osborne's fiscal mandate on debt and the structural deficit
The likely mover of the amendment, Ed Randall, has claimed the vote is the biggest decision the party has faced since the coalition was formed.
Randall argues that "a refusal to acknowledge failure cannot be either honourably or – more important – constructively maintained. The fiscal mandate, in its current form, has to be abandoned and fiscal policy has to be refashioned.
The Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to make their dissatisfaction with George Osborne's self-defeating austerity plain, regain some of their party's political integrity, give real momentum to a more intelligent economic strategy and help to restore a modicum of intellectual coherence to the party's approach to economic policymaking. I hope that we won't fail to take it."
Partly owing to how amendments have been selected, the chances of an assault on the economic policies embraced by Osborne succeeding seem limited. Danny Alexander, Treasury chief secretary, will resist the move, and stress more can be done to create growth, and fair taxes.
But the pressure is mounting. Prateek Buch, a member of the SLF council and one of many left activists with open lines to Cable's office, argues the party or the SLF should produce its own spending review next year.
He also argues: "Everything is being done to stretch the meaning of Plan A, but unless there is an open admission this is a change of course, you are not going to release the animal spirits in industry. Business wants a change of course and a stimulus package. My worry is that we will be the only people left still supporting the policy."
Behind these sometimes technical disputes about the economy lies a deeper unresolved tension about the role of markets, equality and the state. Clegg's former strategy adviser Richard Reeves, writing in the New Statesman, is clear Clegg sides with one side of this debate.
He writes: "Clegg has always been open about the basis of his politics. He is a liberal, not a social democrat … Clegg is a radical liberal, fiercely committed to opening up British society, attacking the hoards of power that disfigure our politics and economy, and to keeping the state out of private lives. Opportunity, not equality. Liberty, not fraternity. Citizens, not subjects."
He asks: "Does the party complete the journey of liberalisation that Clegg embarked on, or retreat to its earlier soft centre-left position?
"Is Cleggism a temporary detour or a real departure? 'Clegg or no Clegg' is a proxy question for the deeper one: 'liberal or not liberal'?
"If the party is to be liberal, it has to be Clegg. If not, it should be almost anyone but."
That may be the test of the apology. If it works, even with a relatively small minority, it will free his leadership, even rid him of an albatross, and recommence a political journey that has become stalled.
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