Nick Clegg always has a hard time taking over from the prime minister at PMQs. Without the vocal support of hundreds of his own MPs behind him, he can often be left looking helpless at the mercy of Labour barracking.
This week, with contentious negotiations on the European budget looming, should have been even worse. If there’s one thing that backbench Tories hate more than the Lib Dem leader, it is the Lib Dem leader talking about Europe
But Harriet Harman, asking the questions in Ed Miliband’s place, missed that open goal. Instead of asking about the one topic sure to leave him looking exposed and distant from the benches behind him, she asked about the Leveson inquiry, childcare costs and the police.
Except for Leveson, which yielded some interesting exchanges (more on which later), her topic choice was poor.
Clegg had made bringing down childcare costs the subject of an email to Lib Dem members at the beginning of the week. Harman pointed out the hypocrisy of talking about this while also cutting child tax credits, before attacking the coalition for cutting police numbers. Her climactic refrain (which was meant to echo Labour’s highly successful line of “You can’t trust the Tories on the NHS”) was:
You can’t trust the Lib Dems on the police!
But the topic let Clegg bring the debate round (albeit tenuously) to the wider economy, on which his forceful, fluent performance, delivered without notes, generated huge approval from the Tory benches. To loud cheers, he said:
At least you can trust this side of the house on the economy.
Harman’s attack also failed because it is not supported by the facts. For while police numbers are being cut, crime levels are falling and victim satisfaction with the police is rising.
Much of this does not matter in the long-term. Harman is not standing as party leader at the next election: her lacklustre performance tells us little about Labour more generally.
But what Clegg showed is that despite the rancour festering in the coalition, on the main question of the economy, it remains united. And surprisingly, Clegg, rather than Cameron, is currently more capable of uniting it.
- Harman’s questioning on Leveson managed to get Clegg to sign up to cross-party talks on the implementation of the judge’s recommendations. I’m not sure how pleased Cameron will be with that – it takes a significant amount of power out of his hands.
- Cameron is often accused of not being a “details man”. But while Clegg’s lack of notes might have looked impressive, it was terrible for answering questions properly. Where Cameron might answer questions on green energy or tax avoidance with detailed policy measures, Clegg answered with soundbites and vague waffle. That probably matters little for the overall impression: perhaps this is a lesson Cameron himself could learn – do less detail, not more.