With the prime minister abroad flogging jets to tyrants, Nick Clegg was left to play the statesman at PMQs. He was opposed by Labour’s Harriet Harman. Once a plucky and hard-working performer, Harman is now entering her Elvis-in-Vegas phase. She can remember the words but can’t find the feeling.
She accused the Lib Dem leader of various atrocities. Sacking policemen. Doing the dirty on tuition fees. Vandalising the Surestart scheme. Nobbling mums with extra taxes. But her meandering phrases were so vaguely scripted, and so feebly delivered, that she might as well have stitched them into a sewing sampler.
Clegg had all the time in the world to sharpen up a few hurtful replies. He demanded that Harman apologise for Labour’s ‘no more boom and bust’ promise. The Tories roared their approval.
This was a surprise. Dave’s men had clearly decided to give his unloved deputy their fulsome support today. And Harman wilted beneath the barrage of baying Conservative shiresmen.
‘You can’t trust the LibDems on policing,’ she wailed feebly. Clegg, by now fired up by the loud-honking Tories, laid into Labour and its complacent indolence. There was real bitterness in his voice, and in his ashen scowl.
‘She and her colleagues,’ he mocked. ‘What do they do? They go on a few marches. They deny responsibility for the economy. And they still haven’t filled in the blank sheet of paper where there should be some policies.’
The roaring Conservatives were now audible on the District Line 40 feet beneath the chamber.
‘And we’re sorting out the mess she left behind!’ Clegg added provocatively.
It worked. Labour’s outraged rank and file now joined in the shouting match. It was too much for Speaker Bercow. He stood up and called for some dignity in the House.
Some dignity. Some chance.
‘This juvenile delinquency should stop,’ he urged. ‘The honorable gentleman is being heckled, stupidly and idiotically, by both sides.’
This was supposed to help but it did the opposite. Undismayed, Clegg said he was accustomed to such treatment.
‘I’m used to getting it from both sides,’ declared the former mass-seducer of 30 women.
Meg Hillier, for Labour, asked him pointedly about implementing the new ‘living wage’ policy. ‘The deputy prime minister says he supports it. How many LibDem councils pay it?’
‘None!!’ came the heckles from Labour backbenchers. (And a few mischievous Tories as well)
In reply Clegg performed a classic Dave maneouvre. He rephrased the question, answered it to his own satisfaction, and then changed the subject.
The living wage, he claimed, was an ‘idea’ not a policy. ‘And a lot of extra work will have to be done to make this a reality. But next April,’ … and here came the switcheroo, … ‘someone on the minimum wage will have their income tax cut by half!’
Wild Tory ecstasies greeted this deft soundbite. And Speaker Bercow – who seems to have been receiving lessons from his wife in hogging the limelight – stood up again to call for silence. The silence lasted only until Bercow had stopped speaking. He then called Peter Bone.
This was an ominous moment. Bone is one of Clegg’s bitterest enemies. But this was no ambush. He chummily invited the Lib Dem leader to salute the Coalition and its prudent economic policies which are driving unemployment downwards.
‘For the first time in my life,’ beamed Clegg with that troubled little smile of his, ‘I whole heartedly agree with him. Let us savour this moment. It will be very, very rare.’
He sat down. Triumph danced in his eyes. The house was united in its passion for him. Labour reviled him. The Coalition loved him. For now he’s a hero.
But the Tories today behaved like shipwrecked sailors conveying a millionaire to the shoreline. They’ll get him there safely and murder him later.
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