PMQs sketch: The enemies of Deputy Clegg

Harriet adopted what some might call the dustbin lid strategy; bashing Nick about the head until he

The only good thing about being Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Lib Dems, apart from the salary and being chauffeur-driven, is that at least you know where your enemies are: everywhere.

It was no doubt this comforting thought that fixed the rictus grin on Nick Clegg's face as he sidled gingerly into the House of Commons to provide half an hour's sport for MPs deprived of their usual target at Prime Minister's Questions. It was when he made his way nervously to his seat that one wondered if he had been told in advance of the PM's decision to absent himself to the US, or if he had only discovered it when he switched on the 10 o'clock news last night.

Mind you, Dave was not the only absentee on the government benches as his minder, Chancellor George Osborne, was also reported to be on the American jaunt. Whether this was just to make sure the PM returns to the UK remains unclear.

With both missing, and Nick a bit short of Facebook friends, the best he could do to muster support was to place Danny Alexander, still bunking off school to do work experience at the Treasury, beside him.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was also present although one couldn't be sure if that was because he had not moved since last week.

PMQs has been the setting for the regular roasting of Dave in recent weeks by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has become rather adept at bringing out the beasty boy in the PM. But parliamentary tradition means that when Dave goes AWOL Ed M gets the day off as well, allowing a rare public outing for his deputy Harriet Harman.

One can only imagine that the PM had left messages to be woken early in his Washington bedroom so that he could breakfast over what normally would have been heading his way before Obama asked him if he fancied watching a game of basketball instead.

Nick knew he was in trouble even before he stood up as the announcement of his imminent appearance at the Despatch Box by Speaker Bercow produced jeers and cheers in equal volume.

Ed M's approach to skewering Dave is increasingly based on the knowledge that the PM doesn't do facts, and a statistic or two is enough to unnerve him. But Harriet clearly decided the forensic approach was not suited to Nick and instead adopted what some might call the dustbin lid strategy on her opponent, bashing him about the head until he quit. Harriet's plan was to expose again the rifts within the Lib Dems over re-organization of the National Health Service following the slapping Nick got at the Party's spring conference last weekend.

She name-dropped Shirley Williams, Lloyd George, Gladstone and even last week's occupier of the naughty step, Vince Cable, as those who would be spinning in their graves -- not yet Shirley or Vince of course -- at what he had done to their party.

Shirley, whose defection to the SDP helped sink Labour during the Eighties, was a "national treasure", declared Harriet, on a par with the National Health Service itself. By now the chamber was in full throat with imminent strokes on the faces of MPs on both sides of the House, as unintelligible insults were lobbed around the room at increasing volume.

Speaker Bercow intervened to demand calm and in that moment rode to the rescue of Clegg.

The Tories had turned up more than happy to see the Deputy Prime Minister toasted and roasted; if not for his grip on the coalition then at least for keeping a few of them out of well-paid jobs on the government payroll. You could see they were a little uneasy with the Harriet attack. But the intervention of the Speaker, who many now believe is a fully paid up member of the Labour Party, was just too much to bear.

There could have been no one more astonished than the Deputy PM himself to hear cheers coming from behind him as he fell back on the tried and trusted: "you had 13 years to put it right".

Perhaps realizing his unwitting part in the rescue, the Speaker then uttered the two words guaranteed to spark fear in any would-be holder of parliamentary power: Denis Skinner.

With the Gang of Four being out of the country, said Denis -- probably referring to the Gang of Three, since William Hague is also on the jolly with Dave and George -- it was Nick's chance to shine. Be a man, said Denis, and tell us what you really think about phone hacking, police horses and Andy Coulson.

Checking to see if he still had all his body parts, Nick just smiled and said he was glad Denis had not mellowed in his 42 years in the House.

Back in Washington, Dave must have thought: thanks be to Obama.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.