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.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.