PMQs sketch: Clegg comes good

Liberal Democrats will be relieved, for their leader proved today he is genuinely capable of standing in for the prime minister.

By Alex Stevenson

The memory of Nick Clegg’s simply awful debut at the PMQs despatch box is a painfully exquisite one. He inaccurately made a government announcement about the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre. No 10 was forced to distance itself from his statement that the Iraq war was illegal. Sleepless nights, we hope, followed.

Perhaps it is the comfort of familiarity which has turned matters around. Clegg gave an assured performance, easily blocking out the incessant heckling from opposition MPs. He has developed a slightly jaunty manner, shrugging his entire body up and down to emphasise points. It is that of the pub bore which, in the intimate surrounds of a bar, appear excessive. In the midst of the theatrical Commons it seems just right.

His points weren’t going down well as he continued Theresa May’s defence over the Andy Coulson phone-hacking row. “It is now for the police,” was as far as he got before being drowned out in groans. A government minister, sticking to the government line? We had come to expect more from the DPM. He appears to have learned the error of his ways.

MPs seemed in the mood for premature vocal reactions (always something to be guarded against). “My right hon friend and I are in complete agreement,” Clegg said, referring to Straw. Labour MPs seized on the moment to howl with laughter. It was unpleasant and artificial. Clegg, impassive, ignored it.

This may be the latest sign of a worrying escalation in premature howling. The war of nerves was sparked after Harriet Harman’s husband, Jack Dromey, fell victim to the same joke earlier this week. He had appeared to suggest fellow Labour MP Chris Bryant was “acting too”, allowing the Tories to prove Labour do not have a monopoly on artificial howling. Now Labour have their revenge.

The man tasked with taking the fight to Clegg was Jack Straw, who has spent the summer growing his hair – and, we suspect, his eyebrows. The effect is to make him look like an especially well-off grandfather. His second question, identical to the first with the added “yes or no?” tacked on the end, proved that repetition does not always reap dividends.

At least he did not get worked up. The last time he stood in for Harman the effect was catastrophic. It left him with no option but the sedate approach. This proved about as effective as a soldier deciding that, having missed his enemy the first time, he ought to stop shooting.

Clegg seemed as at ease as England’s footballers at an easy qualifying fixture. He did not shrink from blaming the Labour government from just about everything. He even lectured Straw and co, out of power after 13 years, on the perils of opposition, where “”it is easy… to deny any responsibility”. And, after admitting that he had prepared for the session “in my slightly rushed manner” an intended barb from one MP – that Clegg is “famous for his humility” – backfired.

Whether announcing a Chinook crash inquiry or being serious about the devastating impact Chinese lanterns are having on the nation’s agriculture, Clegg is getting to grips with PMQs. What took Gordon Brown three years has only taken him three months. Let’s hope – for amusement’s sake, at least – the gaffes come around as quickly too.