Loyally wished a happy birthday by Sir Bob Russell, Nick Clegg, 47 today, thanked his fellow Lib Dem MP before remarking: “On my birthday, I look forward to nothing more than coming to Deputy Prime Minister’s questions.”
He said this in tones of unmistakable sarcasm, suggesting that his real meaning was “quite honestly I’d rather spend the morning submitting to a protracted spell of waterboarding”.
As well he might. The day had started with Boris Johnson calling him a “prophylactic protection device” for David Cameron, or as Boris did not deny, a Prime Ministerial condom.
Then Tory backbencher David Ruffley demanded he apologise for criticising George Osborne’s “excellent speech” on Monday which proposed £12bn of welfare cuts for the poor so, as the Chancellor didn’t quite put it, he can cut taxes for more prosperous floating voters.
Labour’s Dennis Skinner pointed out that there was not one Tory member of the Cabinet present to support him and suggested he did “the decent thing and pack it in and let us have an early election”.
It must have come as a relief – for once – for Clegg to defend the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable for saying that Cameron’s immigration target was undeliverable. Cable had been “entirely right” to point out “that the number of British people leaving Britain to live elsewhere, or those Brits... coming back, is something that no Government can necessarily control”.
This squares with the task Clegg has set himself of what marketing wallahs call product differentiation. On the one hand he out-Cameroned Cameron in blaming the “mess left behind by the Labour government” for everything from growing food bank use to hospital bed blocking at Christmas. So much so that you can’t help wondering what he will lay at the Opposition’s door next. The floods? Instability in North Korea? The threat that Downton Abbey will end after the present series?
On the other hand, he had no truck with any plans of Osborne for “further sacrifices by the working-age poor who are dependent on welfare”. Or the Government’s immigration target. The Lib Demophobe backbencher, Tory Peter Bone, proposed TV debates that would include Ukip’s Nigel Farage, now on an anti-immigration roll, so that Cameron, instead of saying as he repeatedly did in 2010, “I agree with Nick”, could declare: “I agree with Nige.” This would be Bone’s dream. But a nightmare for many others