The most interesting thing about today’s session of prime minister’s questions was not the contest between Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman (although Harman was, as always, an impressive stand-in, and Clegg did better than he previously has), but the reaction of Tory backbenchers, who were given their chance to put the deputy PM on the spot.
Clegg always struggles a bit in PMQs, partly through no fault of his own – his parliamentary party is simply not big enough to give him loud support against the heckles of Labour and the silence of many of the Tories who enjoy seeing him squirm.
But things were even worse today. Not only did his coalition colleagues fail to lend him their vocal support, but several of them openly tried to attack or embarrass him.
John Redwood set the tone when he got up to ask what Clegg was doing about “bossy and unloved red tape”. This would be the same “bossy and unloved red tape” that Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary, is trying to preserve in the face of Tory hostility, because he worries about undermining workers’ rights at a time of high unemployment.
Clegg dodged the question, promising to do everything he could to tackle unneeded red tape. But he couldn’t dodge the second attack, from another former Conservative minister, Peter Lilley, who asked why he was so focused on House of Lords reform when there were so many other more important issues to tackle.
Clegg’s response was very telling:
There are other issues like changing the boundaries which I know are close to his party’s heart…
The Tories will absolutely hate that. They say the original agreement between the two parties was that they would agree to an AV referendum if the Lib Dems agreed to change constituency boundaries in a way that would benefit the Conservatives. Now the AV referendum has been lost, they complain, Clegg is trying to make supporting the boundary changes contingent on the Tories backing House of Lords reform (which many do not like at all).
The exchanges showed how much the two sides still distrust each other. And for that, they may have actually done both sides some good. The Tory backbenchers get to show their voters what their real values are, and Nick Clegg, who was predictably attacked for being David Cameron’s stooge, got to have a fight with the Tories.
But even if that is the case, the questions did put on record for the first time that Clegg is willing to use boundary changes as a bargaining tool to get House of Lords reform. That row has a long way to go.