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Nick rises to Harriet’s limp challenge

14 March 2012

4:06 PM

14 March 2012

4:06 PM

Basketball in America. Netball at PMQs. Harriet Harman, Labour’s venerable form-prefect, took her leader’s place today and lobbed a few rubbery missiles at the PM’s under-study,
Nick Clegg. 

It came down to arithmetic. Even if Hattie had stormed it at PMQs she had no hope of reviving her extinct career. But Clegg has it all to play for. He was ready for it too. Assured, combative and
well-briefed, he filled his replies with fresh, punchy rhetoric. (Mind you, his match-fit performance should be credited to his party activists. Clegg must have spent the last 22 months fielding
nasty questions from chippy wonks at Lib Dem constituency meetings.) 

Hattie tried to upset him by accusing the coalition of ‘throwing women out of work.’ But under Labour, Clegg replied, women’s unemployment rose by 24 per cent. Then she mocked him
for failing to get healthcare professionals to support the NHS reforms. But Labour, said Clegg, had promised in its manifesto that ‘sustained reform was needed to safeguard the health
system.’ Hattie then decided to show everyone that she’d found time to do a spot of homework before today’s session. She quoted Vince Cable’s leaked opinion that ‘this
government has no compelling vision.’ Though barely two weeks old this soundbite already feels as ancient as a fob-watch. ‘No one agrees with Nick,’ said Harman daintily,
‘but does Nick agree with Vince?’

This soft-boiled approach made the session feel more like a massage than a mauling. Clegg fired back and attacked Labour on a range of issues. It had ‘sucked up to the City’; it had
‘relied too heavily’ on public sector jobs; it had ‘spent £250m’ allowing NHS managers to make ‘sweetheart deals with the private sector’. Harman was

She rattled off a bullet-point list of her government’s achievements on health — ‘more doctors, more nurses, lower waiting times and greater patient satisfaction’ —
which Labour members know better than their home telephone numbers. Offering oodles of fake sympathy, she regretted that Clegg hadn’t managed to persuade his grassroots supporters to accept
the health reforms. And, she asked pointedly, what difference are the Lib Dems making in government?

‘Well, Labour must think we’re making a difference,’ said Clegg, ‘because they were handing out leaflets at our conference.’ Hattie had had enough. Realising she
couldn’t land a blow on this battle-hardened bruiser, she staged a diplomatic retreat and offered this affectionate joke which she’s probably been working on since Pancake Day. 

‘In undermining the NHS,’ she said, ‘and making Shirley Williams vote for the bill, he has trashed not one but two national treasures.’ 

Clegg seized the opportunity to lay into Labour all over again. They’d left the banking system in a mess. (Cheers from behind him). They’d left the economy in a mess. (More cheers from
behind him, slightly louder.) They’d abandoned the NHS to ‘arbitrary privatisation’. (Even louder cheers, possibly even from some Tories.)

It was nice to see Head Girl Hattie back at PMQs today. She may be earnest, clumsy and leaden-witted but she brings a glint of warmth and humour to proceedings. What a contrast with Ed Miliband and
his ceaseless stream of high-minded pieties. Each week he stands there sounding like a cardinal who’s just found a slug in his salmon mousse. As for Clegg, he was thoroughly convincing. Only
the odd fumble marred a great performance. 

He announced that St Asaph, in Denbighshire, had formally received City status but he managed to mispronounce the town’s name. Challenged over his promise to employ 3000 extra bobbies in
Tyneside, he said, ‘The key thing is not what the exact number is.’ That sort of glibness would sink him if he were Prime Minister. 

Clegg has always struggled to connect with the public at large. His vibe — posh, dour, handsome and effeminate — does him no favours at all. But he has one attribute that voters will
appreciate. He likes office and it shows. Being in government agrees with Nick. 

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