Coffee House

PMQs sketch: ‘What a penetrating insight into the affairs of state’

15 May 2013

4:15 PM

15 May 2013

4:15 PM

A mood of giggles and mischief descended on PMQs today. David Cameron is in America – attempting to cure insomniacs by explaining Tory Euro-scepticism to them – and his role was taken by Nick Clegg. Harriet Harman, a notoriously sluggish debater, stood in for Ed Miliband. It’s said that when Harman trained as a solicitor she conceived such a high regard for the law that she went into politics instead.

Today she seemed as effervescent as last week’s Prosecco. She droned through a series of pre-scripted gags and less-than-sparkling jibes. This was one of her feeblest ever performances on the front bench. She started by mocking David Cameron for posing in a London bus while in New York. ‘That’s something he hasn’t done here.’

Then she asked why Cameron has attended PMQs only once in the previous eight weeks. Answer: the parliamentary calendar and the Thatcher funeral. Finally she invited Clegg to speculate on the PM’s hypothetical response to a division which is taking place in his absence. ‘Would he vote for or against? Or show real leadership and abstain?’

It’s hard to tell who she was trying to embarrass with these Christmas-cracker jokes. Herself or her back-stage writing poodles?

Clegg swiped her aside with casual irony. ‘She’s spent three questions pointing out that the Prime Minister isn’t here. What a penetrating insight into the affairs of state.’


He had more trouble from Conservative backbenchers. Peter Bone, a seasoned Lib Dem-baiter, took a bite out of The Clegg by asking him to confirm that the Tories are the only party offering an In/Out referendum.

James Gray reached up his sleeve and produced a vintage LibDem poster. ‘Only a real referendum will let people decide our country’s future,’ it said. Gray invited Clegg to join the choir of Tory rebels in the lobbies tonight as they gather to lament the absence of a referendum law from the Gracious Speech.

Clegg declined Gray’s blandishments and repeated his belief that a plebiscite should only follow new treaty proposals. This makes the referendum sound like a rehab programme. It only comes if the EU wants to change.

Edward Leigh aimed the meanest shot at Clegg. He brandished another old Lib-Dem leaflet which showed a referendum pledge alongside a mug-shot of Clegg. ‘Is this man a hypocrite,’ grinned Leigh, ‘or an imposter?’

Clegg smiled back. ‘That man – who I believe to be me – was stating something that my party has restated ever since.’

This was a confident, relaxed, front-foot performance from Clegg. He evidently enjoyed showing the Conservatives how little he cares if they pretend to like him or not. It’s better to face your accusers in open debate, and take their insults in public, rather than hearing them repeated at third-hand in shady corridors and darkened Westminster clubs. Clegg’s assured demeanour did him no end of good.

Politically he’s playing his cards with great care. He didn’t hold back when he attacked Labour’s front bench for messing up the economy, but he was more emollient towards their rank and file. When Labour backbenchers asked him why he hadn’t tackled a problem which they themselves had ignored while in office he accused them of ‘amnesia’. Nice word. Far nicer than hypocrisy which is what he meant. He’s in for the long-haul.

At first sight it scarcely matters that Labour failed to lay a blow on their opponents today. But their grassroots will be deeply unimpressed. If they can’t profit from Tory turmoil during a shambles like the present one, what kind of crisis are they waiting for?

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • realfish

    ‘…She started by mocking David Cameron for posing in a London bus while in New York. ‘That’s something he hasn’t done here.’

    She ought to try it herself. Harman will find it much safer to ride the ‘bus while she is using her mobile. Much better than using it while she is driving and running into parked cars!

    • Tim Reed

      …whilst exclaiming “Do you know who I am!”

  • telemachus

    As I was going up the stair

    I met a man who wasn’t there

    He wasn’t there again today

    Oh, how I wish he’d go away!

    Harriet should have used this Hoggart chant

    • Russell

      You idiot…that was Macavity Brown, well quoted during his disastrous years on the government front benches. As pointed out by many others, Cameron has attended PMQ’s far more than either Brown or Blair did, so would only make mad Harman look even more dopey than she is.

      • telemachus

        Harriet has more worth in her great toe than Cameron and Clegg put together
        Have you seen some of the tripe being spouted in the current Queens Speech debate on BBC Parliament
        Cameron has lost control
        He allows them to Squabble over Europe instead of getting on with the job of sorting out the economy

        • Russell

          You idiot……The EU has a huge affect on our economy!
          Good grief, no wonder you are a National Socialist Labour party supporter. You demonstrate your lack of intelligence more with every post.

          • telemachus

            It is pointless to try to do anything if it falls foul of the Coalition agreement
            I listened to Nick Clegg very closely at lunchtime and what he said made sense
            The Germans in particular will want to amend the treaty to give them better fiscal contol of the Euro miscreants
            Then is our chance to create a sensible raft of measures helpful to us but within the framework
            Then have a sensible referendum

            • Noa

              I’ve told you before.

              Invoke Article 50 giving 2 years notice of departure.
              Referendum on its results.

              • telemachus

                Snag is most of us are not little englanders

                • Noa

                  Not so, unlike you most Britons are not traitors, poltroons and fools.

                  They want a real negotiation, not a faux one based on the crusts thrown to Cameron from the Brussels table, followed by a real referendum.
                  When you will join Joe in the 12th circle.

                • Tim Reed

                  You say ‘Little Englander’ like it’s a bad thing. I think we’re in the process of reclaiming it as entirely positive, along with the flag of St. George.

                  No shame in being a Little Englander!

                • HJ777

                  But you are a ‘little brainer’.

  • Nicholas chuzzlewit

    What a dispiriting paradox. This country has produced the greatest most influential scientist in the history of mankind (Newton), brilliant industrialists and engineers (Brunel etc), creative literary and artistic giants (Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, Turner etc), legendary sports heroes, imaginative philosophers etc. The list is endless. Yet the likes of Harriet Harman, small minded, partisan, ignorant and sanctimonious to the core, represents the best we can do when it comes to choosing candidates to run this magnificent country.

    • dave244

      This is what happens when we have professional politicians who have no idea what life is like outside of the Westminster village all they do now is stick to party ideology and political point scoring and if anyone dares to question them if what you are doing is the right thing for the county you are looked down on as if your an idiot

  • Fergus Pickering

    It isn’t a shambles, Evans. You’re just repeating the hacks’line. It will do the Tories no harm at all, and what with the greenshoots and all, we may look forward to Cameron after 2015 as well as before. Oh, and Britain out of the EU, with others to follow.