At last, Nick Clegg got his chance to pretend to be PM today and he used it to give a
dazzling impression of Gordon Brown. Opposing him, Jack Straw was off-colour. Hoarse of throat and hunched of stance, he did his best to bring some clarity to Britain’s new mission in
Afghan – Operation Leg It. He asked if the exit date of 2014 was ‘absolute or conditional’. Keen to offer value for money Clegg responded to a single question with two answers. He
expected ‘no troops in a combat role’ by 2015 – not 2014 – although our departure was dependent on the Afghans’s ability to secure their own country.
‘Conditional then,’ said Straw repeating his question. Clegg repeated his double answer. Combat troops home by 2015 but ‘no timetable can be chiseled in stone.’ Yikes. We
were getting bogged down here. We were being mired in someone else’s conflict. We couldn’t see a way out. It was horribly familiar.
Straw moved on to Sheffield Forgemasters. He claimed to have uncovered some dastardly act of double-dealing by Clegg but the details were rather abstruse and it all hinged on who said what to whom
about such and such. One thing was plain. Nick Clegg wouldn’t answer the question and instead resorted to classic Brown tactics. ‘Lets-look-at- the-bigger-picture.’ He berated
Labour for blowing the surplus and building up massive debts and he then offered himself a humble tribute for the political master-stroke of restoring the earnings link with pensions. This
wasn’t a pretty sight. Straw retaliated instantly and easily. He mocked Clegg’s loss of enthusiasm for ‘open and transparent government’ and laughed his sudden anxiety that
married couples should get tax-breaks. Last spring Clegg called that policy ‘patronising drivel.’
Bercow, who can’t count beyond five, cut Jack Straw off prematurely and was forced to interrupt another member while Straw was given his sixth question. The Speaker had a ‘mare’
today. If anyone else had been refereeing he’d have been red-carded. He foolishly silenced Nick Clegg just he was about to reveal how an employee of Sheffield Forgemasters had embarrassed
Peter Mandelson during the election campaign.
Bercow claimed to want to hurry things along but he found plenty of time for his own interruptions. When he tried to calm the house – without success – he favoured us yet again with his
Wednesday lunchtime punchline. ‘Members are beside themselves. I’m quite worried about their health!’ Unless he can hire a gag-writer and put it on expenses, Bercow seems
determined to wheel out this brain-dead one-liner every week for the rest of his tenure.
Today’s was a lumbering, noisy and unedifyng session. The only moment of elegance and brightness came from an unusual source. Elfyn Llwyd of Plaid Cymru reminded Nick Clegg of a
‘keynote interview’ he had given to the Guardian. Timing his pauses beautifully to optimise the comic effect and to heighten Clegg’s embarrassment, Llwyd quoted the article one
phrase at a time. ‘I am a revolutionary,’ Clegg had said. ‘I am also a pragmatist.’ Hearing this sixth-form poppycock emanating from the mouth of the wannabe Pericles at the
dispatch box was pure delight. ‘When he decided to raise VAT,’ asked Llwyd, ‘was he being a revolutionary pragmatist or a pragmatic revolutionary?’ Clegg blustered and
waffled and blamed it all on his opponents’ blunders. And if you closed your eyes, you could have been listening to Gordon Brown. ‘He’s come full circle,’ shouted someone.
He sure has.