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.