Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions is rarely an uplifting experience: more like watching some hapless chap stuck in a room full of his ex-girlfriends, all pointing angrily at him, like the wedding reception scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Somehow Peter Bone either manages to get his name on the Order Paper or to tag along at the end of another question to bring up one of the more painful rows in the Coalition relationship, the boundary reforms, or when he’s in a really good mood, what the DPM would do if David Cameron were run over by a bus. He did so again today, even though the Tories have already lost the boundaries vote. Zac Goldsmith was moodily grumbling, too, because the promised Recall Bill still wasn’t making its way onto the books.
Others were less kind. Toby Perkins asked whether there was any point left to the Deputy Prime Minister’s role, given the failure of many of Clegg’s flagship reforms. A lot of MPs, including one Tory, grilled him on the ‘bedroom tax’, which isn’t really anything to do with his department. In the same spirit, Clegg’s answer to Harriet Harman on this housing benefit cut didn’t really have anything to do with the topic: he started burbling on about Labour cutting libraries instead. All the while Vince Cable and Sir George Young sat on the frontbench, watching the goings-on with the detached amusement of a parson watching visitors cross the floor of his cathedral.
But as the gloomy session wore on, finally there was a ray of light. Andrea Leadsom leapt up to ask whether the Deputy Prime Minister regretted his warnings about Conservative EU policy following the first EU budget cut in history. She added:
‘Does he now believe that in fact the Prime Minister is on a bit of a roll and may also be successful in achieving the real repatriation and renegotiation of powers in the EU that will give Britain a better deal?’
‘The lesson of the highly successful summit last week is that it is important to set out a tough but realisable negotiating position, as we did across the coalition. I spent months making the case for the tough approach that we took with politicians around the European Union.’
So yesterday the Labour party were keen to point out their contribution to Cameron’s success in the budget talks, and today it was Clegg’s turn to steal some of the limelight. MPs loved that, jeering and cackling away as the DPM continued to outline Britain’s successful negotiating position.
To be fair to Clegg, he was involved in developing the strategy for last week’s Brussels summit, and he also gave Cameron the green light to veto any unsatisfactory deal before the first summit too. It was something his aides were at pains to emphasise when the cut was announced. The reason he was so keen today to say ‘I spent months making the case’ is that it is in sharp contrast with his isolation when Cameron ‘vetoed’ the EU treaty in 2011; Clegg being in bed at the time.
The only small, rather inconvenient, problem, is that Clegg did say after that vote in Parliament on the Budget that a real-terms cut would be ‘unrealistic’. Still, we wouldn’t want to add to the gloom of DPMQs by being awkward about that, would we?