PMQs verdict: Clegg's novel experience

Nick Clegg: Our "stand-in prime minister"
Nick Clegg: Our "stand-in prime minister"
Adam Bienkov By

It was prime minister's questions today. Except it wasn’t, because there was no prime minister present and absolutely no questions either for or about him.

Instead we had what Tory backbencher Peter Bone pointedly referred to as our "stand-in prime minister".

This is an unusual way to refer to the deputy prime minister, which rather makes him sound like a look-a-like decoy designed to distract enemy assassins, which I guess in some ways he is.

Miliband wasn't in his seat either, having been called off to the important task of explaining why he almost certainly won't offer the public an in/out EU referendum, but almost certainly, possibly might.

Instead we had the much-maligned and recently rather damaged figure of Harriet Harman.

Harman, who has spent the past few weeks defending herself from allegations of being soft on paedophiles, had the task of trying to make Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats look disreputable.

This is an easy task for a Labour politician at the best of times, but was made particularly easy by Nick Clegg’s decision yesterday to support government plans to make it simpler to close hospitals.

Asked why he had chosen to do this, Clegg instead replied about Labour's record in Wales. While certainly an important topic, this was not obviously relevant to the question.

"He isn't even prepared to justify what he voted on last night," replied Harman.

"Hunt broke the law. The Lib Dems could have stepped in and stopped it.

"First they said they were against the change, then they put down their amendment, then they sold out to the Tories. Is there any principle to the way they vote apart from self-interest?"

Of course the correct answer to this question is 'no', or at least 'not many' but the Lib Dem leader was obviously unable to say that.

Instead, he returned to his favourite topics of Labour's record in Wales and the mess he inherited from Labour.

What his answers may have lacked in substance, they more than made up for in volume and hand movements.

Clegg was fantastically animated today in a way that risked alerting any enemy assassin to his real identity.

But in every other respect, Clegg was a perfect "stand-in" for the prime minister today.

His loyalty to government policy was absolute and his attacks on Labour were virtually indistinguishable from any of those delivered by David Cameron.

By the end of the session, Labour MPs had reverted to open mockery of the Lib Dem leader, with the party’s recent by-election defeat by the Bus Pass Elvis party, a repeated source of jokes.

Asked whether his new favourite song was "Nothing but a Lap Dog", Clegg conceded that losing to Bus-Pass Elvis had been "a novel experience".

A novel experience! You can almost imagine Clegg's face as the lost deposits come tumbling in on election day.

"What a novel experience" he'll tell his party. "What a thoroughly novel experience".

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