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Nick Clegg's lack of dispatch box experience shows at PMQs

by Paul Goodman

Nick Clegg's been an MP for little more than five years.  He'd never stood at a Commons despatch box before last May.  He probably didn't expect, when asking questions at PMQs as Liberal Democrat leader last spring, to have had to answer them this summer, or today.

Harriet Harman, by contrast, has been an Opposition front bench spokeman, a Minister, a Cabinet Minister and (in the course of that Cabinet career) Leader of the Commons, which equips anyone who's held the post with unmatchable experience of how the place works.

The difference showed today.  There's a student lobby of Parliament this afternoon, but Harman might well have decided to go on University finance, as she did, regardless: the Government's plan is Clegg's biggest U-turn and, consequently, weakness.  Harman used all her questions on it, and had a good University-friendly gag comparing Cameron to a "dodgy bloke" that one's taken in by during fresher's week.  Clegg had exhausted his stock reply - a litany of Labour's own broken promises on the matter - by the fourth question, and had nowhere to go.  His one attempted joke riposte - taking up Harman's weird attack on Danny Alexander for having red hair - bombed.

She won't have needed persistent tweeting by Labour-supporting journalists during the session to persuade anyone that she had the best of it today.  Labour's Whips had clearly also been busy: there were no fewer than ten hostile questions, by my count, to Clegg about student finance from the Labour benches (as well as a good, friendly one from Paul Uppal, who I may write about later today in another context, on the Conservative benches).  Clegg was flanked by Owen Paterson and William Hague - Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes were asking, via twitter, why the latter isn't in China - and both looked decidedly grim.  Jason McCartney from the Tory benches - which were very quiet today - asked a strong question about contaminated blood.

Another day, another PMQs.  Normal service will resume next week.  I'd be interested to know if Clegg's prepared for these sessions by the same team that helps David Cameron.  If he isn't, I think he should be.


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