So, the Commons had the weekly panto half hour to ask Nick Clegg lots of awkward questions. MPs limited themselves, though, to asking several questions many times over. Nick looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying the encounter and took every opportunity to promote Liberal Democrat coalition wins like fairer taxes and the single tier pension. Strangely, though, he didn’t once mention the words stronger economy or fairer society. Not once.
Harriet Harman’s strategy was strange. She wasted 3 questions on the fact that Cameron wasn’t there and that he’d only answered questions on one week in the last eight. Well, at least 3 of them, if not 4, have been recess, one was State Opening of Parliament and one was Baroness Thatcher’s funeral. Did they not look at the diary? She also kept asking Nick how Cameron would have voted if he’d been here for the EU referendum vote tonight? Is he supposed to read Cameron’s mind, or something? Why would they discuss something he wasn’t going to be there for.
I had been looking forward to the inevitable Peter Bone question, but when it came, it was ordinary. Not even a mention of Mrs Bone. He was the first of a succession of questions from Tory MPs on the EU Referendum. Once he’s repeated his answer three times – that our policy, from our manifesto, was for an in/out referendum if there were major treaty changes, for which the Coalition has already legislated. He then said that, having presented a good Queen’s Speech, you would think that those on Government benches would be promoting it instead of moaning about what wasn’t in it. His final retort was to ask the final questioner on this subject what they would take out of the Queen’s Speech to allow the Referendum Bill space. In the middle of all this, John Bercow rebuked MPs for shouting at Nick, saying “I don’t think the Deputy Prime Minister minds being shouted at but…” The Speaker didn’t, however, intervene when Edward Leigh quoted a Liberal Democrat leaflet and asked Nick if he were an imposter or a hypocrite. I thought the h word wasn’t allowed. Nick quite cheerfully owned the leaflet and expressed it consistent with Liberal Democrat actions.
The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow, by the way, is not telling the full story. He accuses Nick of telling “two whoppers, ” referring to an article Nick wrote for the paper in 2008. Context is everything – and the proposal then was as a Commons amendment to the Lisbon Treaty debate. Sparrow should actually look at the platform on which we fought the election which has been delivered in Government. Our manifesto says:
The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
Simon Hughes expressed disappointment about David Cameron’s decision to go to the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka because of their human rights record. Nick agreed that the Sri Lankan Government’s record of oppression was despicable and that if it didn’t improve, there would be consequences. This didn’t stop Labour’s Siobhan McDonagh ask an almost identical question later. As an aside, both Simon and Alan Reid asked questions the last time Nick did PMQs in November. I scolded them at the time for being a bit toadying. There were better efforts today, Alan’s on fuel prices which is very relevant to his rural constituency.
There was a very serious moment when he was asked about the abuse case in Oxford. He paid tribute to the young women who had come forward and given evidence and said that he hoped the guilty would get the most severe sentences.
The only question he didn’t answer came from the Labour benches, about Remploy workers being denied severance payments if they found a job before the factories closed. He talked about how the Government was following recommendations to get Remploy workers into mainstream employment and was supporting them to do so, but didn’t address the redundancy payment issue at all.
Labour were not playing to either their own strengths or Coalition weaknesses today. One MP had a go about the top rate of tax being dropped. Nick simply asked him back what the top rate of tax was under Labour – before answering the question himself – a whole 5p LESS than it is now.
Then someone tried to pin him down on youth unemployment. Not the wisest thing to do to someone whose spent a billion on a youth contract, ensuring record apprenticeships and opportunities for all 18-24 year olds.
Jo Coburn, on the BBC’s Daily Politics, pronounced Nick’s performance “feisty.” He certainly gave a lot better than he was given, and did so cheerily.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings