Hattie Harman tried to crack Clegg today. The deputy prime minister, standing in for David Cameron, explained carefully that his boss was visiting, ‘Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories.’ Not a title the Israeli Tourist board has got round to using.
Hattie wasn’t on her best form. She tried to draw Clegg as a hypocritical house-slave attempting to duck responsibility for his master’s actions. But she plodded through her jibes. Over-rehearsal had killed her hunger to perform. And Clegg met all her accusations with a simple ploy. Blame Labour. It worked every time. On the bedroom tax Clegg had the support of the figures. A million and a half are on housing waiting lists. The same number are in homes with spare rooms. Makes sense.
Clegg took the opportunity to unfurl his new repertoire of vitriolic slogans. He said that Hattie and her colleagues had ‘sucked up to the City’, ‘crashed the economy’, and ‘left the worst peacetime deficit in history’. Labour were ‘the party of Fred Goodwin.’
Hattie tried turning Clegg’s state-of-the-nation musings against him.
‘He may love Britain but Britain doesn’t love him.’
‘Punchline wasn’t worth waiting for,’ sniffed Clegg. Then he rattled through a checklist of Labour’s blunders and the Coalition’s remedies and a strange transformation took place. He began to sound like an old Tory bruiser returning to Downing Street after ousting three socialist administrations in a row.
‘As ever,’ he huffed, ‘we’re clearing up the mess her party left behind.’
Labour’s backbenchers used Clegg for a spot of target practice. One called him a lapdog. ‘At least we’re not the lapdogs of the bankers,’ he said.
Another accused him of ‘spineless, shameless capitulation to the Tories on the NHS’. Clegg countered that Labour had done ‘sweetheart deals’ with healthcare privateers.
He caught it from the Conservatives too. Peter Bone called him an undemocratic Liberal Democrat for withdrawing his support for an EU referendum. Clegg performed a hand-brake turn and declared his full and consistent support for a referendum but only in circumstances where new powers are about to be ceded to Brussels. Some might call that cheating. He’d simply re-shaped the ‘in or out?’ issue into the ‘would you eat a dodo?’ question. It’ll never happen.
Clegg has an unflappable adroitness in the chamber, yet he still unites all sides against him. Is it the inherent duplicity of the LibDems? Is it his personal predicament as a Tory vassal claiming to oppose Tory policy? Or is it just the Blair tribute act? Certainly that brand of Savile Row populism looks out of date. And Clegg is much meaner than Blair ever was. He adores flinging his caustic little insults around and he repeats them with heartfelt relish. But the vituperative tone doesn’t sit well with the visuals. A suave, handsome toff who drips privilege from every pore needs a lighter touch and a more generous exterior. Blair knew that. It hasn’t occurred to Clegg.
He has plenty of confidence and facility but he retains a toxic shiftiness. And he can’t project moral strength. Ask the crucial question – the Vichy question – and Clegg comes out as a collaborator. The kind who later claims to have been a double agent all along. And then stands for president.
His bust-up with Harman was particularly vicious today. And people are wondering if two such bitter foes could ever work together in cabinet.
Of course they could. And they do. Just ask Vince.
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