By Matthew Barrett
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The Prime Minister is visiting America this week, and so Nick Clegg was the Coalition's representative at PMQs. Predictably, it was a slightly different affair to the usual format – that is, some Tory backbenchers focused their attacks on Clegg rather than the Opposition, and Labour attacked the Coalition, but especially Clegg. Clegg managed to beat Harriet Harman, in what was a "rowdy but fairly dull" exchange, as Tory MP Rob Wilson tweeted.
The first question from a Labour backbencher asked why the American economy is recovering better than Britain. Nick Clegg responded in Cameron-esque fashion, bashing the last Labour government and saying he wanted a benefits system that makes work pay.
John Redwood posed a Clegg-sceptic question, asking if the Government would introduce a freedom bill to "get rid of bossy and unloved regulations" Clegg replied by saying "We have already introduced a large set of measures that have removed a large set of unnecessary clutter off the statute book, and any further opportunity to do so we will grab with open arms."
Responding to the first question from Harriet Harman – taking Ed Miliband's place this afternoon – criticising today's unemployment figures, Clegg responded that youth unemployment went up 40% under Labour, and women's unemployment went up 24%. Clegg went on to say "Labour sucked up to the City of London" and the last government was over-reliant on the finance sector.
Harman responded that "Lib Dems are making no difference" on issues like the NHS. Harman asked why Doctors, and various medical associations were against the NHS reforms. Clegg responded by saying Labour are now against reform, and read out a section from the Labour manifesto which sounded pro-reform. Harriet Harman dodged the question, saying "We are proud of what we did to the NHS". Harman continued "This Bill is still a top-down re-organisation… it's clear the DPM won't stand up for the NHS. The only thing he stands up for is when the PM walks in the room".
Clegg asked whether Harman was proud of her government giving £250m to "sweetheart deals" with the private sector, and noted the previous government introduced a "privatiser's charter". Harriet Harman responded "we'll compare what our government did with what his government did any day". Harman continued by saying Clegg has the power to kill the NHS reforms. She asked whether he will instruct Lib Dem peers to vote against it. Clegg avoided the question by reading out quotes showing Labour were in favour of privatisation and cuts to the NHS. Clegg insisted the Coalition would deliver "a more equal outcome for the NHS".
Harman mocked Clegg as being the weak successor to Liberal greats like Gladstone and Lloyd George. Clegg responded by blaming Labour for leaving the banking system, public finances, and "the arbitrary privatisation of the NHS" in a mess.
Clegg passed his Harman test. But he still had to contend with the Tory backbenches:
- First, Peter Lilley asked how his constituents could be persuaded that House of Lords reform should be a priority for the government. Clegg responded by saying: "I suspect in the same way that he will explain to his constituents that there are other priorities like changing the boundaries of his constituents." Clegg also criticised the principle of unelected peers helping shape legislation.
- Then, Douglas Carswell asked: "Changes to child benefit will mean a single income family on £43,000 will subsidise a couple earning over £80,000. Does he think this is fair?" Mr Clegg gave the standard government response: "I think it is fair that someone earning far, far, far beyond the average should not be subsidised in receiving child benefit by people on much lower incomes."
Again, Clegg managed to hold his own against the Tory backbenches. A better-than-expected performance from the Deputy Prime Minister.
Two other points of note:
- Dennis Skinner asked Clegg to come clean about what he "really thinks about this Murdoch sleaze, and the Prime Minister riding borrowed police horses. Man to man, what does he really think? Come on, be a man!" Clegg responded: "We're soon going to celebrate, if that's the right verb, 42 years of the Hon Member's time in this house and over that time I'm delighted to say that he hasn't mellowed one bit".
- Mr Speaker clearly enjoyed PMQs as the session lasted until 12.37.