PMQs review: Clegg sings from the Conservative hymn sheet

Such was the force with which the Deputy PM delivered the Conservatives' attack lines that Peter Bone said he was "turning into a Tory".

Nick Clegg may publicly insist that he is neutral between the Tories and Labour but today's PMQs (at which he deputised for the absent Cameron) was a reminder of why it is so hard to imagine him working with the opposition if there is another hung parliament in 2015. Such was the ferocity with which Clegg tore into Harriet Harman that, by the end, his Conservative bête noire Peter Bone declared that he was "turning into a Tory".

Taking his script straight from CCHQ, he attacked Labour's energy price freeze as a "con", "economically illiterate" and "a fantasy". This was followed by a series of Cameron-esque blasts at the party's trade union "bosses" and "paymasters", and an unqualified defence of the bedroom tax (which his party's conference voted against) on the grounds that it was merely a continuation of the policy introduced by the last Labour government in the private sector. With Tory MPs cheering him on, he declared that Labour wasn't even an "opposition-in-waiting", let alone "a government-in-waiting", a line that shows why a Clegg-Miliband coalition seems increasingly implausible.

Both Labour and Lib Dem MPs attempted to lure Clegg away from his Tory masters, with Lucy Powell questioning him on Cameron's marriage tax break plans (which his party opposes) and Charles Kennedy asking him whether he welcomed the fact that Cameron was now a loyal supporter of Britain's EU membership (on account of the pro-European policies pursued by the government). But Clegg failed to rise to the bait, merely praising Kennedy for his "mischievous wit and wisdom" and, on the marriage tax allowance, remarking that there were acknowledged "differences" within the coalition.

There were jeers from both sides when he rather hyperbolically declared that "without the Liberal Democrats, there wouldn't be a recovery", a preview of what will be his main general election message. But after his blitzkrieg against Labour, the Tories were content to let it pass. Clegg's challenge is to ensure that his party wins its share of credit for the return of growth, while doing enough to differentiate itself from the Tories. Rarely has he failed more in this balancing act than today.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Buhler Sortex factory on October 8, 2013 in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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