There were to be no repeats of Danny Alexander’s wobbly the day before. Nick Clegg was certain of that. And just in case he wasn’t, George Osborne was by his side to keep the deputy prime minister on message through prime minister’s questions while David Cameron was away in Turkey.
The chancellor may not be that bothered one way or the other if Clegg likes his autumn statement, but it would be embarrassing for a second Lib Dem member of the Cabinet to throw a wobbly at the despatch box in two days.
Clegg didn’t fluff his lines. Well, not too badly. “The autumn statement was a coalition autumn statement,” he began, failing to explain why he had chosen to show his enthusiasm for it in Penzance rather than in the House of Commons. “I spent one day in Cornwall; opposition members have spent five years in cloud cuckoo land when it comes to the economy.” Osborne looked down at his check-list and applied a mental tick. One down, 20 more to go.
The Tory benches didn’t quite know what to make of it. They have as little regard for the deputy prime minister as the chancellor and many had already voted with their feet: for the first time in months there was empty green leather at PMQs. Yet neither did they want to give the opposition any encouragement and so when Clegg did his imitation of the prime minister’s call-and-response trick they half-heartedly obliged.
“Employment … ,” said Clegg, waving his arm upwards. “Higher,” shouted one or two back-benchers after a hurry-up from the whips. “Pensions … ,” Clegg went on, something approaching a smile crossing his face. It doesn’t take much to restore the deputy prime minister’s self-confidence; for a man who has spent the last four years writing his own political epitaph, he is remarkably resilient. “Higher,” shouted a few more backbenchers. Osborne checked to make sure Clegg wasn’t going to ruin things by adding “poverty” to the list before adding another tick. Two down.
Clegg was happy to add inequality to the list, though. In Ed Miliband’s absence, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman chose to question Clegg on his party’s attitude to women. “How many Lib Dem women had he appointed to the cabinet during the coalition?” she asked. As the answer was none, the deputy prime minister might have been better off saying: “We need to improve our record.”
Instead, his testosterone got the better of him. This might be the last time he ever got to do PMQs and he wasn’t going to miss out on a fight. “I would remind her, however, that millions of women in this country have got from this government what they never got from her government,” he said. “Better pensions; more jobs; tax cuts; shared parental leave; better child care; and more flexible working.” Brilliant. What Clegg had effectively said was that women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads because they were far better off being governed by a bunch of men.
At which point the argument was lost. Harman went in mercilessly for the kill and Osborne added a double tick. The Lib Dems are struggling for all the votes they can get and Clegg had just lost half of them in a heartbeat.
No wonder Lib Dem Mike Thornton appeared a little shell-shocked to be called by the speaker. “Sometimes I worry I might forget where I am,” he said sheepishly. Replace worry with hope.
Clegg meanwhile marched out of the chamber, unaware of the damage he had done. Once he realises, no one would put it past him to start briefing against himself.
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