This blog tries not to resort to negative cynicism about politics and our politicians: other media outlets do a sterling job of that. But watching the historic moment when a Liberal Democrat stood at the despatch box for the first time ever at PMQs, I couldn’t help feel that the history of the moment was drowned by farcically long-winded questions, non-answers and puerile interruptions. (Although I don’t want to sound too po-faced, if you ignore the substantive politics, it was very good fun.)
The mood in the Commons was especially rowdy, even for a normal PMQs. With the Lib Dems sinking in the polls Labour sniffed a chance to give Nick Clegg a kicking while both Tories and the Lib Dems sensed the need to give their man their full backing. All this led to a bubbling cauldron of noise, with John Bercow, the speaker, telling MPs off even before questions began.
And by the time it came to the main event, Jack Straw versus Nick Clegg, the House was at boiling point.
Jack Straw said this would be his only appearance at PMQs; opposition MPs shouted, “No!”
Straw said Clegg had made an error by saying directors at Sheffield Forgemasters were not willing to dilute their equity in return for a government loan; Labour MPs bellowed “Ooh!”
Clegg repeatedly failed to answer the question of whether he would apologise for his error; Labour MPs called out, “Answer the question!”
Clegg’s non-answers got so bad that he embarked on one riff about Liam Byrne’s joke that there was “no money left” only to be slapped down by the speaker who told him he was being “too discursive”.
Not that it got much better for Straw: one question began with an odd reference to Clegg’s “new-found friend, Lord Ashcroft”, before mentioning how few voters think the Lib Dems are having an effect on government policy and finally asking another question about Forgemasters. It got so long-winded that Bercow moved on from Straw after only five of his six allotted questions. When it was pointed out that Straw had not had all his questions, Bercow said: “Apologies, it felt like he had.” (Queue more braying from the government benches).
But while the Straw’s long-winded questions and hollow-sounding anger fell flat, it was Clegg who emerged the loser. After all, a failure to answer a fairly straightforward question (Did you make a mistake? WIll you apologise?) does not bode well for the new politics.