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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.