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

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.