With Prime Minister David Cameron off to Washington to visit with Barak Obama, his deputy Nick Clegg took over in Westminster for the last Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer break.
Now PMQs, as it is known in the trade, is not usually the most stimulating spectacle in the world. But today many were interested to see how Clegg would stand up to questioning about the coalition’s policies. Could he defend the economic policies that he campaigned against during the election? The cuts and VAT rise?
Clegg also had to promote his party’s interest as well as his government’s. A YouGov poll released today shows Lib Dem support falling to just 14%, which must make many of his backbenchers very nervous.
The afternoon began with a question about Michael Gove’s mishandled school building cuts. Clegg sought to blame Labour who he said would have made cuts too.
Jack Straw for Labour chose Afghanistan as his initial subject, focusing on the withdrawal of troops. Clegg stated that this would happen by 2015, although was unclear whether this was a conditional withdrawal or not.
The next attack came on a cancelled loan to a company in Sheffield, with Straw alleging that the House had been misled about the reasons for the government’s actions. When invited to clarify his earlier remarks Clegg somehow managed to blame Peter Mandleson in an answer that lacked any substance.
Questioned on some of his past remarks about the Tories, given his newfound support for their policies, Clegg again ignored the detail. He argued that the two parties had to come together to clean up Labour’s mess. And when his support for the VAT rise was queried, Clegg predictably blamed the previous government once more.
Potential cuts in Disability Living Allowance and job cuts from transport infrastructure cuts were dismissed as necessary in the economic conditions. Detention of children in asylum cases and tackling rural poverty were priorities. And that’s where the half hour ended.
Nick Clegg was in a difficult position this afternoon, but he put in a credible performance. At one point though, he was cut off by the Speaker for making a speech rather than answering a question. And later Bercow, who had difficulty maintaining order, told him to concentrate on his government rather than the previous one.
In a rowdy atmosphere the debate seemed to become a Labour v Lib Dem one with the Conservatives left as the elephant in the room. Labour clearly feels that its best strategy is to seek to divide the coalition, but today this let Clegg off the hook. He was allowed to attack rather than defend the policies he has signed his party up for.
Labour will feel they missed a trick today.
Jack Straw’s performance was poor compared to some of the recent ones by Harriet Harman and his attacks failed to hurt Clegg. He had an opportunity to pin Clegg down on the detail of his support for Tory policies but instead the Deputy Prime Minister was allowed to blame everything on the previous government.
Nick Clegg was vulnerable today. He emerged with a few scratches but without taking any mortal wounds. And he will be happy with that.