A rumble in the Westminster jungle

It is incredible how fast a leopard can change his spots. Nick Clegg, standing in for David Cameron this week, went from performing his disassociation act at last week’s autumn statement to returning to laughable form as the Cameron-lite poster boy for four and a half years of anarchic austerity.

Standing in for Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman performed a sterling job in getting Clegg on the ropes and beating him into the corner of electoral catastrophe. After smugly telling Jonathan Reynolds that Labour was in ‘cloud cuckoo land’ following Reynolds’s question about Clegg’s absence at last week’s autumn statement, the deputy prime minister walked right into some furious fisticuffs from our seasoned bruiser.

Harman’s questions, which may have laid out a key gender element in Labour’s forthcoming election campaign, saw plenty of ducking and weaving from Clegg, but no real blocking or riposting. Clegg was hung out to dry, his hollowness on display for all to see as he could not answer the percentage of women who had dropped sex discrimination cases as a result of the coalition’s levy of tribunal fees – a staggering 90 per cent – as well as how many of the seven Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers were women – a disappointing zero.

Aching at his side, so he did a good job to hide it, Clegg even attempted to emulate Miliband’s audience interaction from his 2013 conference – ‘higher’, Clegg shouted, ‘higher, higher’ in an attempt to smear Labour’s record in office with negative spin on pensions and unemployment. It is a pity that most of the additional ‘higher’s came from the ever-irascible Tory backbenchers, with an added eagerness of peeling off their limpet Clegg by May next year.

The Liberal Democrat leader did himself absolutely no favours in his crass response to Julie Hilling’s question about cuts to frontline services and a 69-year-old constituent who bled in the street for 90 minutes while waiting for an ambulance following a hit-and-run incident. Clegg could have demonstrated genuine grace at acknowledging a sincere problem with frontline service delivery by this coalition government. Instead he chose a cheap and pitiful shot at the Labour government’s management of the 2008 economic crisis, a response that left a furious Hilling and a coalition frontbench looking terribly satisfied with themselves. Such an empty response will lay bare the emptiness of the coalition line that they were sent to clear up Labour’s mess, when they cannot answer direct questions on behalf of squeezed constituents.

Harman was especially strong in her sharp skewering of Clegg’s political double standards, rightfully stating that he ‘talked the talk, but when he walks, he walks with the rest of the Tories in the lobby’. With her forensic solicitor’s eye on the facts and her street-fighting tone, Harman marshalled the passion, determination and attention to detail that could well deliver the next election for Labour.

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James Gill is a member of Progress. He tweets @JamesGill13

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