Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman stood in for David Cameron and Ed Miliband at PMQs today. This usual back-up format now jars more than usual. The Lib Dems’ recent aggressive “differentiation” strategy from the Tories makes Clegg an odd stand-in for the Prime Minister his party so often briefs against, and the potential for a Lib/Lab coalition come the next election puts Harman’s attacks in a strange light.
However, the Deputy Prime Minister and his fellow Lib Dem ministers’ attempts since the Autumn Statement to distance their party from Tory economic policy was utterly destroyed during today’s skirmish. This was down to an odd alliance of Tory MPs and Labour’s deputy leader Harman.
Harman, following her party’s news today that she will take a leading role in its general election campaign to win women’s support, pursued a tricky line of questioning on the Lib Dem and government record on serving female voters.
She first attacked Clegg on the fact that he has never appointed a woman to the cabinet table – “four and a half years as Deputy Prime Minister, seven cabinet appointments, not one woman” – and followed up with a rare well-timed cutting dig when he wouldn’t reply to her question: “He’s reluctant to answer. Normally when he’s asked questions about numbers and women he’s quite forthcoming.”
Harman went on to combine the government’s “woman problem” with its most unpopular policies: “Of those who benefit from the millionaire’s tax-cut, what percentage are men?” and “of those hit by the bedroom tax, how many are women?” When Clegg inevitably didn’t give her answers, she provided them herself: 85 per cent and two-thirds, respectively.
This onslaught of tough questions on his record on women panicked Clegg into doing the customary PMQs call-and-response tactic by reading out negative things that were “higher” under the Labour government: female unemployment, inequality, child poverty, etc. Each charge he shouted out was followed with a “higher!” from the Conservative benches. Rather unhelpful support for a party leader so desperate to distance himself from the nasty Tories that he didn’t even attend the Autumn Statement last week.
Clegg was rapidly being forced to backpedal on his no-show, on his Business Secretary Vince Cable’s condemnation of the Chancellor’s “brutal” economic plans, and his Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander’s accusation this week of the Conservatives in government wanting to shrink the state due to “an ideological demand, not an economic necessity”.
It was clear he was forced into a corner, because following Tory MP Stewart Jackson asking him to counter suggestions that the government’s economic decisions are from “an ideological commitment to austerity”, Clegg agreed that they are from a “balanced, pragmatic, non-ideological approach to balancing the books steadily over time”. Defending the cuts he has tried so ardently to distance his party from in the build-up to the election.