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Clegg at PMQs: Nick without Dave

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 21 July 2010

"You suddenly wondered if Nick had forgotten that he was standing in," broadcast executive Peter McHugh writes for Channel 4 News on Nick Clegg's first appearance at PMQs.

Nick Clegg

Scottish questions is a quaint House of Commons custom where people from north of the border shout unintelligible insults at each other for half an hour.

This is followed by PMQs where people south of the border, apart from the Geordies, shout intelligible insults at each other for a similar length of time. This is called democracy.

But today was different because the P in PMQs was missing. For the first time since that magical moment in the Downing Street rose garden the self-righteous brothers were split and Nick was on his own. The P might have flown the coop but the DP was present and so it was time for DPMQs.

Vince slipped on to the benches, so did William and George, “with friends like these,” he must have thought.

The house was packed – mind you they are off on their hols next week -and before you knew it they were off.

“Questions to the Prime Minister,” squeaked the Speaker and up stood Nick.

“In your dreams pal,” seemed to measure the warmth of his welcome but his association with influence over the past 10 weeks had clearly rubbed off.

Within minutes he was displaying all the skills of those who had stood at the despatch box before him. His answers bore absolutely no relationship to the questions asked. You could see he had not wasted all those years being ignored by Gordon Brown - now it was his turn.

As Dave was in the USA with Barack, the acting Labour leader Harriet Harman had also done a runner leaving Jack Straw in her place.

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A forlorn figure, surrounded by those who even now can’t quite believe what has happened, Jack struggled through his brief.

In the best parliamentary traditions he replaced argument with volume and the MPs, obviously over-excited at the end of term, joined in.

“Members are besides themselves,” said the Speaker, raising all sorts of weird mental images.

Jack said his first appearance as acting deputy leader of the Labour opposition would probably be his last. The coalition side cheered, so did Labour.

Meanwhile Nick sailed on, his jokes were judged funny, his asides engaging and his timings perfect.

He reminded the House he was the first Liberal leader to stand there since David Lloyd George back in the 1920s. He didn’t remind them Lloyd George was dumped by the Tories for flogging off peerages but then you can’t really blame him.

It was then that you suddenly wondered if Nick had forgotten, just for the moment, that he was standing in.

As even Tory members looked on adoringly, had Dave made a mistake swopping his special relationship with Nick for one with Obama?

Jack sat down only to stand up again when Speaker Bercow realised he had got his sums wrong and the shadow justice secretary still had one question to go. By then nobody cared.

There was however a moment of hubris which Nick may well come to regret. Flushed with success, egged on by those behind him, he uttered the following prophetic words: ”I am happy to account for everything we are doing in this coalition”.

I am sure Dave will be happy to let him. It is said that the job of deputy PM almost never leads to the real deal.

Prime Ministers from Thatcher to Blair used the job to pay off their friends or buy off their enemies.

Indeed the former deputy president of the United States, John Nance Garner said the number two job “was not worth a pitcher of warm spit”.

The only deputy prime minister ever to get the top job was Clement Attlee back in 1945.

He was the deputy prime minister in a coalition government led by a Tory. 

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was this year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

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