For a man who made a speech in 2010 heralding the “new politics”, Nick Clegg is pretty adept at the old kind. He was harried from all sides about an imminent announcement that cabinet ministers will be able to hire 10 taxpayer-funded “personal advisers” in what the Tory Philip Hollobone decried as “a move towards a US West Wing type of Government”. (If only. Since the hero of the television series is an idealistic president battling against vested interests this was slightly off target.)
Clegg was then – to use Neil Kinnock’s immortal verb – kebabbed with an unanswerable question from Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Had the Deputy PM not (in 2009) said of such special advisers – known as SpAds – “these are political jobs and therefore should be funded by political parties. Special advisers will not be paid for by the taxpayer”?
Ouch. In such circumstances, there was only one way out, shop-soiled though it is. Reach yet again for Len McCluskey! Among the many quasi-constitutional functions of the Unite general secretary is his mandatory deployment by ministers with their backs to the wall. “His question was probably written for him by Len McCluskey,” Clegg declaimed. “Was the question written for him by a trade union – yes or no?” This translates as “It’s a fair cop. But that was then.”
It is now obligatory for other Lib Dem ministers to pack the front bench during Clegg questions. Some, you feel, more enthusiastically than others. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael left halfway through, doubtless for a rendezvous vital to the future of the Union. But an impassive Vince Cable, buried in some complicated departmental document during these exchanges, managed to convey the sense he would rather be anywhere else.
The monthly Clegg event lurched erratically across the range of his responsibilities, from nitty-gritty constitutional (electoral registers, Welsh devolution) through the more intangible (social mobility) to the unashamedly local (“life sciences in north-east Cheshire”). “Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have articulated their vision for the Humber region,” said the Tories’ Martin Vickers. This had passed some of us by. But he wanted news of progress.
The DUP’s William McCrea returned to SpAds. Had Clegg’s office costs “increased or decreased,” he asked, “and by how much”? He should look at figures published in October, he was told, and anyway Clegg’s special advisers “support various departments across Whitehall.” This too needs a translation. Which is: increased. By quite a lot.