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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.