For the Lib Dems this was the first day of the afterlife. Booted off the AV-train which
was supposed to fast-track them to power, the minority party now looks politically homeless. Everyone in parliament makes jokes about them but the gags never raise a laugh. Pity intervenes. At
today’s session Ed Miliband was haranguing Cameron for ‘dumping on’ his ministers as soon as their policies run into trouble when he broke off to indulge in a Lib Dem-kicking
moment which he felt would cheer his troops. ‘And the poor deputy prime minister,’ chortled Miliband, ‘gets dumped on every day of the week!’ Sad laughter followed. No
one’s heart was in it. Mocking Clegg is like throwing a wet sponge at a man with a fractured skull.
For a year, the Lib Dem leadership has been silent at PMQs. Nick Clegg’s vocal chords must be shrivelling up with disuse. Every Wednesday he has to sit beside the PM, meek and mute, trying to
show his supporters how ferociously independent he is by nodding slightly, but not too much, when Cameron outlines government measures, or by curling a queasy lip whenever his Tory master praises a
policy the Lib Dems dislike. This isn’t politics. It’s puppetry. And it’s hopeless. Everyone knows it. At each session an ‘acting leader’ of the Lib Dems is
chosen, effectively at random, by the Speaker.
Today he called Bob Russell, MP for Colchester. (Russell was called last week as well so he’s had two more stabs at PMQs in a fortnight than Clegg has had in 12 months). Russell is a mild
dresser but a wild speaker and he seems to have spent a bit too long at Trostkyite finishing school. Like a lot of militant throwbacks he invested two quid in the Sunday Times rich list last
weekend because the pictures are titillating and there are only so many times you can read ‘The Road to Wigan Pier.’ That list is like a crackpipe for Maoists. It triggers ecstasies of
Russell started at full volume yelling hoarsely at the prime minister – who was barely three feet away from him – ‘If we’re all in this together what is he going to do about
the OBSCENITY of a thousand multimillionaires boosting their personal wealth by 18 per cent in the last year?’ If this tirade from a ‘coalition colleague’ came as a surprise to
Cameron he didn’t show it. He was probably offering up a thankful prayer that he hadn’t made the hate-list himself. He waffled blandly about measures to smoke out more tax-dodgers. Bob
Russell sat down, becalmed.
A moment later a similar question was asked by another Lib Dem but the contrast couldn’t have been greater. Tom Brake is a smooth, unexciting, well-trimmed young man with a constituency
(Carshalton and Wallington) to match. He politely derided Labour for creating an economic wasteland and asked, even more politely, if the prime minister would ‘give the house an update’
on the rescue effort. Cameron switched on his inner robot and recited a catalogue of calamities averted, scourges terminated, marvels discovered and treasures restored. He went on so long that the
opposition started shouting angrily at him. Which delighted him enormously. ‘Yes, yes, I know they don’t want to hear it,’ he gloated merrily. The whips will have been chuffed as
well. Tom Brake resumed his seat quietly pleased that his ‘question’ – or ‘bid for preferment tucked inside an affirmation of malleability’ – had gone down so
Between Brake and Bob Russell we see the widening polarities of the Lib Dems in parliament. And there aren’t just two planes of disengagement here, there are four. The left-right split
– becoming daily more visible – is further subdivided along the Limousine Line that separates chauffeur-driven ministers from cab-hailing wannabes. The LibDems are resolving into
segments like an over-ripe satsuma. The major parties are getting ready to feast on this juicy orange windfall, but there’s no hurry. For now they’re happy to take the pith.