Clegg refuses to back Coulson

Today was never going to be an easy PMQs for Nick Clegg. Thrown into action at the last minute after David Cameron went to visit his ill father in France, he suddenly had to face a barrage of questions from Jack straw regarding the role of Andy Coulson as media adviser in Number 10.

Straw asked again and again whether Clegg accepted Coulson’s denial that he knew anything about phone hacking at the News of the World while he was editor. Clegg again and again refused to say yes. Here’s a sample answer:

Mr Coulson has made it clear he took responsibility for something of which he had no knowledge at the News of the World. That statement speaks for itself. It is now for the police and the police alone to decide whether new evidence has come to light which they should investigate.

Cameron, who appointed Coulson, has said he “accepts” Coulson’s denials. The word sounds mealy-mouthed perhaps, but a spokesman insists he “accepts” means the same thing as “believes”.

Clegg, who has to lead a party which probably largely does not believe Coulson’s denials, would not even go that far. All he would say is that it was a matter for the police.

He even upped the ante, in fact, by mentioning Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s media adviser, who quit after sending emails discussing false smears against Tory MPs. The Damian McBride case is one some in Labour are keen to raise also – saying that if McBride had to stand down because of accusations of spreading malicious gossip, surely Coulson should do so when faced with allegations of sanctioning illegal behaviour.

Clegg had a difficult balancing act to perform, but I wonder how Cameron will react to his refusal to say whether he even “accepts” Coulson’s denials?

But Clegg did land one blow. He revealed that after Coulson quit the News of the World, the first person to call offering comiserations was Gordon Brown. According to the deputy PM:

He told him not to worry, that he had done the right thing and that he was sure he would go on to do a worthwhile job.

Clegg’s point that Labour’s piety is a bit galling now given their previous attempts to suck up to News International will certainly strike a nerve.