PMQs review: Clegg's assault on Labour cheers the Tories

The Deputy PM shouted himself hoarse as he defended the coalition's economic record.

So forceful was Nick Clegg's defence of the government at today's PMQs that, by the end of the session, his voice had been reduced to an IDS-like croak. Deputising for David Cameron, who doesn't return from the Gulf until later today, Clegg launched attack after attack on Labour. Asked by Harriet Harman, who stood in for Ed Miliband, why the Lib Dems had broken their election pledge to increase police numbers, Clegg thundered, "at least they can trust this side of the House with the economy!" When Harman replied that the public couldn't trust his party on tuition fees, on childcare or on the police, Clegg, his voice rising with anger, exclaimed, "What about her promise of no more boom and bust? What happened to that one?" He added that while the government had reduced the deficit by a quarter and reformed welfare, Labour had merely "gone on a few marches", "denied any responsibility" for the deficit, and failed to fill in its "blank sheet of paper". Sat next to Clegg on the frontbench, George Osborne smiled with pleasure at the Deputy PM's performance. Given the ferocity of his attacks on Labour, it's becoming ever harder to see how Clegg could work with Miliband in the event of a hung parliament.

Earlier in the session, Harman had questioned Clegg on the Leveson inquiry in an attempt to drive a wedge between him and Cameron. While Clegg emphasised his commitment to "a free, raucous, independent press", he added that "business as usual" was not acceptable. Provided that Leveson's recommendations were "workable and proportionate", Clegg said he would support them, a stance that leaves the door open to some form of statutory regulation.

A notable moment came when Tory MP Mark Reckless mischievously asked the Deputy PM whether he would be involved in choosing Britain's next EU commissioner (it is often suggested that Clegg could resign as Lib Dem leader to take up the post when it falls vacant in 2013), to which Clegg, refusing to play dumb, replied: "I won’t be a candidate, however much he may hope otherwise". It was, as far as I can recall, the first time that he had explicitly ruled himself out of the running.

Both Clegg and Harman also took the opportunity to congratulate Barack Obama on his re-election. After Clegg had done so, to cheers from Labour MPs, he presciently observed, "I suspect that's the only point I will be cheered by the benches opposite." Harman offered a spirited endorsement of Obama, noting that the US President had pledged to "create more jobs", "provide healthcare for all" and tackle "the scourge of inequality". Her message, in short, was "just like Labour!"

Nick Clegg leaves number 10 Downing Street for Parliament earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

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