“Feisty” Clegg in Groundhog PMQs

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 Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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29 Comments

  • Callum Leslie 15th May '13 - 3:20pm

    His answer on the top rate of tax really needs to change. Simply being not as crap as Labour isn’t the standard we should hold ourselves to. Cutting tax for the wealthy is a clear statement of coalition priorities…

  • What answer would you suggest Callum?

  • I was struck by three things. Firstly how shocking Harman was. She demonstrated ably why the best asset for the coalition remains the Labour party. Secondly, in addiction to not answering the second Remploy question I found the tone and content of Nick’s answer to the first question arrogant and disrespectful to those staff affected. When talking directly about people’s lives and livelihoods I would have expected a more statesmanlike approach.

    The final thing was I thought the Tories queuing up with the same quote should have used the last European manifesto ..

    “Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not.”

    This clearly intimates that the question of membership should be resolved before the negotiations. This is totally at odds with Cameron’s current plan to win the case first, then have a vote…

  • I still don’t understand why it’s an expected part of this absurd ritual for the PM (or DPM, or whoever) to have a flip (and usually irrelevant) response to every “question.” Would the government really fall if the questionee were to reply “That is a serious, complicated problem which we are carefully considering?’ Would it be asking too much of this or of any government to convey the sense that governing is an extremely complicated business involving many choices that are bound to hurt *somebody*, and that the complications cannot be distilled into a witty five-second putdown?

  • @David – dodging a question that way would become the Father Ted response: “Ah, now that would be an ecumenical matter….”

  • I suppose it could be used as a “dodge,” but the fact is that most of the “questions” aren’t actually questions (i.e., honest attempts to elicit information on a particular subject) and cannot be answered in the form in which they are submitted. A government that was interested in changing the tenor of PMQs could best do so by providing honest, detailed answers to any real questions that were proffered, and “dodging” the dishonest grandstanding rather than providing facetious non-answers to questions and non-questions alike.

  • The lack of PMQs over the last couple months may not be the most pressing issue of the moment but Harriet Harman still has a fair point. Parliament rose for Easter on a Tuesday which ruled out that week’s bout. There was only a very brief session after Easter before Parliament rose again for another break ahead of the Queen’s Speech with another confrontation lost for Thatcher’s funeral which, conveniently for Cameron, just happened to be on a Wednesday. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of the likely headlines in the Tory press if a Labour PM had managed to avoid so many question times.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '13 - 5:15pm

    Callum Leslie “His answer on the top rate of tax really needs to change. Simply being not as crap as Labour isn’t the standard we should hold ourselves to.”
    Ben “What answer would you suggest”
    I think Callum makes a good point. Lib Dems should be able to defend that policy (every policy, really) on its own merits, not simply say yah boo to Labour. Not least because attacking Labour is irrelevant if defending the reduction of the tax rate when queried by those of us who voted Lib Dem, not Labour.
    If those with the highest incomes deserve a lower rate of tax, or if the Laffer curve shows conclusively that 45% is a magic number, then say so to justify the policy.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 15th May '13 - 5:50pm

    But, Callum, we are actually taking in more in the way of tax from the rich. The “cut” cost £1 bn but we are getting in £4 bn more. Not as much as arguably we could take in, but Labour have nothing to write home about on this.

  • “The “cut” cost £1 bn but we are getting in £4 bn more.”

    As I thought was well known, the estimates these kinds of comparisons are based on are extremely questionable.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '13 - 6:50pm

    The Lib Dems are going to turn into the Euro Federalist Party, attracting a load of right wing single market capitalists. Not offering an EU referendum in 2017 is first of all saying we don’t believe in democracy and second of all that we don’t believe in being a party of diverse views.

    The treaty change stuff is a minor excuse, in my opinion.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '13 - 6:52pm

    If we are trying to build the party into one that hopes it can one day win a general election, we cannot do it by looking like EU obsessives.

  • Andrew Tennant 15th May '13 - 6:57pm

    Harman spent her time on pointless and trivial questions because she has nothing of worth to say and no viable alternatives to offer. This is true whenever any Labour spokesperson speaks on anything and the media give them far too much airtime to spread disingenuous smears and partisan hyperbole.

  • Chris,
    presumably you’d like to take this opportunity to ask your question then…

  • david thorpe 15th May '13 - 7:37pm

    the top rate of tax answer does need to improve-there is much more room of rmaneuvre
    i thought was 3excellent

  • A Social Liberal 15th May '13 - 9:16pm

    First of all, did or did not the Labour Party introduce the 50p rate immediately before the last election. If the 36 days bandied about before the GE is correct would you agree that there is no way that an assessment of how much millionaires were dodging this tax can be made. Given this, what was the reason that Lib Dems decided to vote for a reduction to 45p?

    So – how much would a 50p tax rate actually raise. Obviously more than a 45p rate not withstanding the propensity for rich people to dodge their duty. This begs the question I asked at the end of the last paragraph. What WAS the reason Lib Dems voted for bringing the top rate of tax down?

  • On the top rate of tax, am I correct that Labour introduced the 50p rate (for after they left office) as a temporary measure? If so what is the status of the 45p rate? Is this too temporary or is it more long term? If it is more long term then this could provide a different basis for an answer.

    I suspect that the 45p rate is also a political compromise, so some parts of government treat it as long term while others see it as interim. Nonetheless the answer that the rich are shouldering more of the tax burden than under Labour is very much to the point. The rich seem to have been particularly feather-bedded by Labour: do we know why they assessed 40p to be the optimum highest rate?

  • David Pollard 15th May '13 - 10:27pm

    I thought Nick Clegg did well. Of course dealing with a split Tory party is like shooting fish in a barrel. Now Nick has to take the opportunity to behave as though he is running the country, whilst Cameron is distracted trying to deal with the Euronuts, of which there are apparently 115 now.
    One other point, Caron, on the second question about remploy people not getting their severence pay if they leave early, Nick said he would ask Ian Duncan Smith to follow it up with the questioner.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '13 - 10:43pm

    Mark, I know that Lib Dems have been calling for reform in the EU and don’t think it is perfect. I just think being against this particular referendum will put off some liberal and social democrat leaning voters and potential members. I’m in favour of the EU but I think there are some huge flaws in it that may be unresolvable, such as being in quasi political union with some relatively much poorer countries. Obviously nothing is actually unresolvable, but I don’t see the Lib Dems as the party shouting for reform.

  • “Chris,
    presumably you’d like to take this opportunity to ask your question then…”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find your comments harder and harder to make sense of these days.

    Obviously what I’m saying is that the coalition line quoted by Lindsay – that other tax increases brought in five times as much as the top rate tax cut gave away – is based on some very questionable numbers. That the numbers have been questioned is surely well known to both you and Lindsay.

  • Peter Watson 16th May '13 - 12:03am

    @Simon Shaw
    Why not retain the 50% rate and close tax loopholes?

  • Liberal Neil 16th May '13 - 8:49am

    Caron and Simon are correct – the strongest answer is to state how much more tax the top ten percent are paying overall, and then point out that the current top rate is higher than it was under almost the entirety of the Labour government.

  • Peter Watson 16th May '13 - 9:19am

    @Simon Shaw “Because the objective is to secure more income tax from very high earners, which is what 45% + close off loopholes does.”
    @Jedibeeftrix “because people might consider it punitive.”

    By definition, closing off loopholes is intended to ensure that people pay the appropriate of tax on their income. Changing that appropriate rate of tax is an independent decision.

    The point of view that 50% is intrinsically too high a value is one that I can respect. It is a specific defence of the policy that comes from Conservatives. The Lib Dem leadership always seems happier to deflect the discussions rather than simply state that they believe 45% is the right level for those on high incomes, or that it is still too high, or that it is too low but was a concession to the tories.

  • Tim Pollard 16th May '13 - 9:48am

    I must say I’m a bit disappointed by Lib Dems who bang on about the 45p rate. It clearly comes from a successful negotiating strategy from Nick, Danny and others.

    Look at it this way. It was something the Tories really, really wanted. Given that we had two options, 1. Make it a red line issue and refuse to let them have it, or 2. Screw them for as much as we could in return for giving it to them.

    Doing 1. would mean using up political capital that we’d hope to use on other things, on something that wasn’t even in our manifesto (remember we ditched our commitment to a 50p rate from 2005 on the grounds that there were better ways to raise money from the rich, ie in ways that were less avoidable and didn’t disincentivise wealth generation).

    Doing 2 however allowed us to insist on numerous other taxes on the rich which outway the amount brought in by the 50p rate (exact figures are always difficult to estimate but they got enough to suggest that they won the trade, probably comfortably). And what’s more, those new taxes were in line with Lib Dem policy.

    Obviously once a deal was agreed all our MPs had to vote for it, and why not? It was a good deal IMHO.

    Whether there is a better answer at DPMQs or not, concerns me less. Pointing out Labour’s hypocrisy on the issue is fine for an environment where we have take collective responsibility. On leaflets however we can point out that that was the Tory’s priority while ours was to cut tax for the low paid.

  • David Wilkinson 16th May '13 - 6:49pm

    What Nick should remind Labour hacks of is;
    The rich had a tax cut every year under Labour
    Capital Gains was 18% under Labour, now 28%
    The 10p tax band change by Gordon, making the poor pay even more tax
    The triple lock on pension, remember Gordon’s 70p
    £700 tax cut delivered for millions

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