Nick Clegg triumphs at PMQs

Breaking news: he really believes this stuff.

From the Commons chamber.

Nick Clegg today became the first Liberal to respond to Prime Minister's Questions since the PMQs sessions began in the early 1960s, and the first to address the House on behalf of a PM since Lloyd George in the 1920s.

With David Cameron away in the United States and Conservative and Lib Dem spin doctors sitting side by side in the Press Gallery, Clegg stood in for the first time since his party took power at the May election, with Jack Straw standing in for the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman.

Straw asked about Afghanistan, and whether Cameron's expressed desire to see British troops coming home by 2014 was unconditional. Clegg said the pledge was for 2015.

Straw claimed that Clegg's answer did indeed imply that the pledge was "conditional", but the Lib Dem leader said clearly: "We will see combat troops home by 2015."

Straw moved on to ask about the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, which was refused early on by the coalition, although it has now been revealed by the Financial Times that the government wrongly accused the company's directors of being unwilling to sell more equity to private investors. However, Clegg quickly diverted the exchange on to Peter Mandelson, before the Speaker intervened to say it was not relevant. Straw also asked Clegg about marriage tax breaks, which the Lib Dems previously opposed.

The discussion moved on to the economy more widely, with Clegg quoting Peter Mandelson's diaries as reporting that Alistair Darling wanted to raise VAT as the new government has since done.

Straw began to lose his voice as he shouted at Clegg, and was himself shouted down. Clegg said he needed "to go away and practise a bit more".

There was confusion as Straw got up to ask a final question but the Speaker called the next MP, while Straw stood at the despatch box shaking his head and indicating he had one more question. The Speaker, John Bercow, said he thought Straw had had his allotted questions, but then corrected himself and called Straw once more.

The question was along the same lines as before, but Clegg got the better of the exchanges by saying he hoped that Straw would one day account for his involvement in "the illegal invasion of Iraq". It was interesting to note the ferocity of Clegg's attack, given that he was sitting next to two ardent supporters of the "illegal invasion", William Hague and George Osborne.

Clegg later claimed that Britain has inherited from Labour not just a "fiscal crisis", but also a "social crisis", with social mobility falling.

There was momentary silence when Kate Green, the impressive new Labour MP, asked about a constituent in Stretford and Urmston who suffers from septicaemia, pneumonia and MRSA and is wheelchair-bound, yet faces a medical test in order to receive disability benefit under this government. Clegg defended the plan, claiming to have met constituents who actively wanted such tests to clarify their position in relation to benefits.

Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour MP, asked for a total reconsideration of Britain's strategy in Afghanistan, amid the deaths and opinion polls in that country showing that western involvement is not working, instead of a plan to withdraw in another five years' time. Clegg said he disagreed but admired Corbyn's "consistency" on the issue.

Overall, Clegg more than held his own in a rowdy House, and showed himself more than capable of enthusiastically defending the actions of the new Tory-led coalition government.

The Deputy Prime Minister will however continue to face questions over the series of U-turns his party has performed since entering government. Today, though, he sailed through without much in the way of effective, coherent criticism from the Labour front bench, whose need for a new leader is increasingly apparent.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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