By Andrew Gimson
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Is the Nick Clegg who promised a referendum at the time of the Lisbon Treaty "an impostor or
just a hypocrite"? This was the contemptuous choice offered by Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough) as Clegg stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions.
Leigh was one of several Tory MPs who enjoyed referring to the leaflet in which Clegg pledged himself to a referendum. Vince Cable, believed by some to be intending to supplant Clegg as Lib Dem leader before the next election, grinned as the awkward question was put. Danny Alexander, a loyal Cleggite, looked hot with embarrassment.
But Clegg himself did not look in the slightest bit embarrassed. He confirmed that the man in the leaflet was himself, and declared that the Lib Dem position remains that "we should have a referendum on Europe when the rules change".
Whether or not that is a true summary of the Lib Dem position, Clegg managed to sound as if he thought it was true. He looked like a man who was greatly
enjoying the chance to clear his name.
And perhaps Clegg was enjoying himself. It must be deeply frustrating to have to sit, week after week, watching David Cameron hog the limelight at PMQs.
Clegg is bound to reckon he could do better than Cameron, could sound more trenchant and show greater fighting spirit, and here was one of his rare chances to prove it.
Harriet Harman is bound to think she could do better than Ed Miliband, for whom she stood in. When listening to his performances, she seldom manages to look more than politely dismayed.
But Harman failed to get the better of Clegg. She asked whether Cameron, if he had happened to be in this country instead of in America, would have voted for, against, or "showing true leadership" have abstained on tonight's referendum amendment.
Clegg was too nimble to be drawn into a question like that. He congratulated Harman on spotting that Cameron was absent, and proceeded to blame everything that is wrong with this country on 13 years of Labour misrule.
And Clegg's attack came off rather well. It was enjoyable to hear him denounce Labour as "the party that went on a prawn-cocktail charm offensive sucking up to the banks". He was also rather good when he pointed out that the top rate of tax was lower under Labour than it is now, which makes it a bit rich of them to accuse the present government of sucking up to millionaires.
If Clegg got the chance to do this every week, one would weary of it. But he had seized the chance to prove that he is not quite such a negligible figure as his critics like to assume.