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By Peter Hoskin
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Drop
Nick Clegg in front of the despatch box, and some remarkable transformations
take place. The Labour benches start braying even more than usual. The Deputy
Prime Minister gets angrier and angrier in return. And the Tory backbenches
start to warm to this fellow who has it in for their shared enemy across the
Commons. This is what happened in PMQs today, where Mr Clegg was standing in
for the absent David Cameron.

We
did have to wait longer than usual for the process to unwind itself,
however — as Harriet Harman started with a couple of questions about the
Leveson Inquiry that included words such as “cross-party” and “talks”. The
Deputy Prime Minister was suitably non-partisan in response. He did stress that
the press should remain “free, raucous and independent,” but he also added that
“everyone accepts that it cannot remain business as usual”.


But
then Ms Harman changed tone and demeanour: the following questions were about
cuts to childcare tax credits and to police numbers. For the former, Mr Clegg
concentrated on the policies that the Coalition has introduced to ease the
strain on families — including the rise in the income tax threshold,
which the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned about half-a-dozen times throughout
the session, a mark of how eager the Lib Dems are to stamp their authorship all
over it. For the latter, he basically ignored the question and launched a
merciless assault on Labour’s economic policy. “At least you can trust this
side of the House on the economy,” he started, before pointing at Labour’s
frontbench. “What have they done? They’ve gone on a few marches.”

By
this point — and despite John Bercow’s unthinkingly callous remark that Mr
Clegg was being “heckled from both sides of the House” — there were plenty of
Tories cheering the Lib Dem leader on. And the cheers continued during the backbench
questions. When Labour’s Lilian Greenwood stood up to make claims about
Kettering General Hospital, Mr Clegg replied scornfully, “I find it
extraordinary that she persists in this wilful scaremongering.” When another Opposition
backbencher brought up the police commissioner elections, he hit back with an
attack on “has-been ex-ministers” who may or may not be John Prescott.

Even
those Tories who aren’t normally sympathetic to the Lib Dems were rather kind
to Mr Clegg. Mark Reckless could have asked some devastatingly tricky question
about Europe, but instead there was enough levity in his question — “does the
Deputy Prime Minister expect to be involved in the selection process for our next
European Commissioner?” —for the DPM to joke in return, “I won’t be a candidate,
however much he might wish otherwise.” And then Peter Bone saw fit to actually
celebrate the Coalition and its united effort to reduce the deficit. “Let us
savour and treasure this moment,” chirped Mr Clegg.

There
was another Tory backbench question that was friendly to the Lib Dem leader,
and is worth noting. Oliver Colvile asked whether the Coalition might reaffirm
its commitment to renewable marine energy in the South-West, which Mr Clegg was
happy to do. This, no doubt, is part of the post-Hayes fightback by those Conservatives
who believe firmly in the cause of renewable energy.

The
session finished with Nick Clegg hailing the “great shared endeavour” of the
Coalition. As after many of his appearances at the despatch box, the victor was
the adhesive that holds the Coalition together. And it reinforced the idea that
Mr Clegg could never work with Labour after the next election, nor they with
him.

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