Why doesn’t Nick Clegg join the Tories? Watching the Liberal Democrat leader stand in for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, this question became harder and harder to repress. Labour really dislike Clegg. Harriet Harman, who was standing in for Ed Miliband, goaded the Deputy Prime Minister about the acute shortage of women in the higher reaches of his party.
“Normally when he’s asked about numbers and women he’s quite forthcoming,” Harman observed: an unkind reference to an idiotic answer Clegg gave to an interviewer in 2008, when he admitted to sleeping with “no more than 30” women. Andrew Gwynne (Lab, Denton and Reddish) enquired about a Lib Dem donor who has apparently sacked 160 workers. Gregg McClymont (Lab, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) asked in a pointed way what source Clegg could cite for an assertion made about pensions.
Labour even pursued Clegg after he had left the Chamber, by raising a series of points of order about the replies he had just given. It is clear they hold out no hope of doing a deal with him after the general election: the Lib Dems would have to change their leader for a coalition with Labour to be a possibility.
Clegg stood up to these attacks rather well. On the donor question, he pointed out that Labour are “bankrolled by the trade unions”, and suggested that Gwynne’s question “might have been written for him by his trade union bosses”. But Clegg achieved these successes by sounding very like a Tory.
Labour claimed afterwards that this was good for them, and no doubt that is what they think. They draw pleasure from pushing Clegg towards the Tories.
But I wonder who will have the last laugh. For on almost every issue, Labour looks like a party defending a pre-austerity past to which there can be no return. Its instinct is to oppose any reform of the National Health Service: Andy Burnham used a point of order to make the questionable claim that he was in no way responsible, as Health Secretary before the last general election, for the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital.
So Clegg has jumped the right way: he has allied himself to the party which recognises the need for a new politics of austerity. And whatever the electoral consequences of that decision may be, he deserves some credit for being brave enough to make it.