With David Cameron away in the US, it was left to Nick Clegg to defend the government at today’s PMQs, a duty that he embraced with some relish. Asked by Labour MP Liz Kendall what had gone wrong with the economy, Clegg wasted no time before declaring that “what went wrong was the Labour government for 13 years”. It had left “an unholy mess in 2008, which we’re having to clean up.” It was a reminder of Clegg’s undiminished contempt for Labour. On the central issue of deficit reduction, the coalition remains united.
Deputising for Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman heightened the partisan mood. For all Clegg’s “bluster”, she declared, having five Lib Dems round the cabinet table had made “no difference whatsoever”. On today’s unemployment figures, Clegg’s defence was that this wasn’t a problem “invented” by the government. Female unemployment rose by 24 per cent under Labour and youth unemployment rose by 40 per cent. But he had no answer to Harman’s point that when Labour left office, unemployment was falling. It now stands at a 16-year high.
On the NHS, Clegg dwelled at length on the last Labour government’s “sweetheart deals” with the private sector, a fine debating point but one less impressive than it sounds. The current shadow cabinet is not bound by the actions of Gordon Brown’s government.
Harman rightly asserted that the fundamentals of the health bill remain in place and said of Clegg: “the only thing he stands up for is when the Prime Minister walks into the room.” Earlier in the session, with reference to Vince Cable’s leaked letter, she quipped: “These days no one agrees with Nick but does Nick agree with Vince?”
But although she took every opportunity to clobber Clegg, Harman had some kinder words for his Liberal predecessors. She accused the Deputy PM of betraying the “fine liberal tradition” epitomised by Gladstone and Lloyd George [not a historical analysis shared by all Labour MPs] and of trashing Shirley Williams, a “national treasure”.
Today’s session, then, was a reminder of why Labour insist that Clegg’s resignation would be a precondition of any deal with the Lib Dems after the next election. But it also offered further evidence of how some shadow ministers are wooing the party’s social democratic wing.