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Nick Clegg stands in for David Cameron at PMQs, still hates Labour

By Peter Hoskin
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Drop Nick Clegg in front of the despatch box, and some remarkable transformations take place. The Labour benches start braying even more than usual. The Deputy Prime Minister gets angrier and angrier in return. And the Tory backbenches start to warm to this fellow who has it in for their shared enemy across the Commons. This is what happened in PMQs today, where Mr Clegg was standing in for the absent David Cameron.

We did have to wait longer than usual for the process to unwind itself, however — as Harriet Harman started with a couple of questions about the Leveson Inquiry that included words such as “cross-party” and “talks”. The Deputy Prime Minister was suitably non-partisan in response. He did stress that the press should remain “free, raucous and independent,” but he also added that “everyone accepts that it cannot remain business as usual”.

But then Ms Harman changed tone and demeanour: the following questions were about cuts to childcare tax credits and to police numbers. For the former, Mr Clegg concentrated on the policies that the Coalition has introduced to ease the strain on families — including the rise in the income tax threshold, which the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned about half-a-dozen times throughout the session, a mark of how eager the Lib Dems are to stamp their authorship all over it. For the latter, he basically ignored the question and launched a merciless assault on Labour’s economic policy. “At least you can trust this side of the House on the economy,” he started, before pointing at Labour’s frontbench. “What have they done? They’ve gone on a few marches.”

By this point — and despite John Bercow’s unthinkingly callous remark that Mr Clegg was being “heckled from both sides of the House” — there were plenty of Tories cheering the Lib Dem leader on. And the cheers continued during the backbench questions. When Labour’s Lilian Greenwood stood up to make claims about Kettering General Hospital, Mr Clegg replied scornfully, “I find it extraordinary that she persists in this wilful scaremongering.” When another Opposition backbencher brought up the police commissioner elections, he hit back with an attack on “has-been ex-ministers” who may or may not be John Prescott.

Even those Tories who aren’t normally sympathetic to the Lib Dems were rather kind to Mr Clegg. Mark Reckless could have asked some devastatingly tricky question about Europe, but instead there was enough levity in his question — “does the Deputy Prime Minister expect to be involved in the selection process for our next European Commissioner?” —for the DPM to joke in return, “I won’t be a candidate, however much he might wish otherwise.” And then Peter Bone saw fit to actually celebrate the Coalition and its united effort to reduce the deficit. “Let us savour and treasure this moment,” chirped Mr Clegg.

There was another Tory backbench question that was friendly to the Lib Dem leader, and is worth noting. Oliver Colvile asked whether the Coalition might reaffirm its commitment to renewable marine energy in the South-West, which Mr Clegg was happy to do. This, no doubt, is part of the post-Hayes fightback by those Conservatives who believe firmly in the cause of renewable energy.

The session finished with Nick Clegg hailing the “great shared endeavour” of the Coalition. As after many of his appearances at the despatch box, the victor was the adhesive that holds the Coalition together. And it reinforced the idea that Mr Clegg could never work with Labour after the next election, nor they with him.


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