The Sketch: A decent debut, but then again he was up against Jack Straw

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The Independent Online

It wasn't very long ago that Nick Clegg was a nice young man with pointless good looks and a brain like a lucky bran tub. You'd pull something out and it might have been supertax or zero tax, one as likely as the other. Later, as leader, he stood so far down the benches you couldn't hear what he was saying, but it didn't matter because he was a parliamentarily pointless Liberal Democrat.

Now here he is in the very centre of attention holding the line for the Prime Minister, the first Liberal to do so since the old goat David Lloyd George.

What confidence these people must have. He welcomed Jack Straw to his new position, how about that? Later he chided him for needing more dispatch box practice. He did, he did. Chastised Jack Straw: more practice at the dispatch box, old boy, that's what you need if you're to get the hang of it.

He wasn't bad, comparatively. But the comparator was Jack Straw who wasn't good. Hoarse, complex and malevolent (which doesn't suit him), Jack got lost in the detail, and swallowed up in the noise.

Clegg was dashing, fresh and shameless (which did suit him). Yes, his learning curve has been amazing. He was asked a nice point about the stock dilution behind the Sheffield loan and he replied by attacking Peter Mandelson.

Also, he was going to take troops out of Afghanistan without question by 2015 – but equally, no timetable could be "set in stone". It's not as good as Blair, but he certainly had it both ways. Lloyd George would have liked that.

And in these salad days, he can still talk about moral outrage. He can still tell us that "a sense of decency and liberty will inform our actions". I'm savouring this as much as I'll savour the disappointment when internment is declared.

And he was able to wind his opponent with his last word: "Perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all..." – and while we were going through a Rolodex of disastrous decisions, he concluded – "the illegal invasion of Iraq."

Oof! That hits home in a way no Tory can manage (they voted for it). They had to listen to the enumeration of their crimes from their left.

That's very awkward for them. Apart from the debt and the dud cheques, Clegg told us how Labour had committed "the moral outrage" of "imprisoning 1,000 children innocent of any crime". He undertook there and then to close down Yarl's Wood detention centre.

Labour is outflanked on all sides.

So, interestingly, this Deputy PM is fulfilling the same function as the last Deputy PM. Clegg is the Government's Prescott. His job is to deliver a small but vital packet of votes to keep the Government in office. The difference from Prescott is that when Clegg sounds like he's speaking a foreign language, he probably is.

NB: The House was noisy for the day's knockabout, and we mustn't therefore forget the Speaker. Leaving aside old animosities...

Actually, I don't know how that sentence might end. Taking into account our old animosities, the Sketch predicts a bumpy run into Christmas for the Speaker's new regime of quiet debate. With a new leader in the autumn, Labour is going to organise its feelings and will need to express them in the usual manner (shouting, chanting, animal noises).

Bercow has good bullying instincts. He understands the importance of picking on the weak ones first, and of cultivating his supporters. But he lacks the presence of a really successful bully. He lacks voice. When disobeyed, he cracks quickly. He barked yesterday as if at a dog. You'd call the RSPCA if you saw that outside the chamber.

And on another tack altogether, he lacks moral authority ("bent ref" is one Tory expression tagged to him). There will be a moment before Christmas when he will have to threaten to suspend the House. A good deal will depend on how that sentence ends...

A Liberal milestone

* "This is the first time that a Liberal leader has been here in this position since the 1920s," claimed Nick Clegg, as he stood at the despatch box to take Prime Minister's Question yesterday. If anything, he was being modest. Prime Minister's Questions as we know it dates back only to 1961, so it was the first that any politician other than leaders of the two main parties had presided over PMQs.

* Clegg was evidently harking back to David Lloyd George, the greatest Liberal politician of the 20th century, who was Prime Minister, in 1916-22. Before PMQs yesterday, Jo Swinson, a Liberal Democrat MP, tweeted yesterday that she was "reserving a seat to watch a little bit of Lib Dem history later today – Nick Clegg taking pmqs, first Lib leader to do so since 1922."

* But there is a slight glitch in their grasp of their own history. Though Lloyd George was Prime Minister, in a coalition government, he was not technically the "Liberal leader". That title was claimed by Lloyd George's rival, Herbert Asquith, who was Prime Minister until Lloyd George joined forces with leading Conservative to oust him.

* So actually it has been 94 years since a Liberal leader did what Nick Clegg did yesterday – answered questions in the Commons addressed to the Prime Minister since 1916.