PMQs sketch: Clegg slaps a dead fish

An historic PMQs sees Nick Clegg score an embarrassingly easy victory against Jack Straw.

By Ian Dunt

You know it’s bad when you start feeling sorry for Jack Straw.

I promised myself this wouldn’t happen again in darkest February, when he appeared in front of the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war and insisted he was a terribly nice man who’d really tried to stop those dastardly neo-cons from invading half the Middle East. Left-wing, moderate, almost apologetic, he was getting close to being likeable, in the way a caterpillar is likeable if you haven’t just discovered it crawling up the inside of your boxer shorts.

Then there was the man everyone else at the inquiry described: the prime minister’s right-hand man, branding legal experts “dogmatic” and generally acting like a power-hungry nutter. Slippery customer, that Straw. In Westminster, one must remember to sympathise as little as possible.

But it was a bit of a struggle not to sympathise today. Nick Clegg’s first stand-in performance for David Cameron at PMQs has passed, rather unfortunately, without us emerging any the wiser about his abilities in this unique role. Straw was just too weak, too slow, too pathetic, to count as a proper opponent. Clegg slapped him around a bit, as if he was a violent pre-pubescent boy who just found a dead fish, and then threw him back in the water.

Straw’s arguments meandered around his rhetoric like a drunk taking a stroll around a cul-de-sac. There was a point about Sheffield Forgemasters which got lost somewhere, although it got lost very, very slowly indeed. There’s substance there, it seems, but it was lost in delivery. “That wasn’t so much a question as a dissertation,” Clegg informed him scornfully.

Earlier, Straw made the foolish decision to tell the House that it was his first time standing in for PMQs and “probably my one and only experience”. The House, as one, exclaimed sympathy with a large “Ahh”. But a few minutes of droning later, and MPs were enthusiastically cheering Clegg’s cruel prayer that it was the last time Straw took to the despatch box. “It seems to me he needs to go away and practice a bit more,” Clegg sneered, to considerable approval. Don’t feel sympathy. It’s not cricket.

By the end of his attack, if you can call it that, Straw had found his way into questions on the marriage couple’s tax allowance and Lord Ashcroft, but he hadn’t landed a single blow, apart from a couple on himself by sheer force of ineptitude. Clegg’s final taunt reminded him that if he wanted to go down the Mandy route and release a memoir, he had better not forget his role in the Iraq war. If Straw writes a memoir, it will clearly have no full stops or paragraphs, and it will be of infinite length. They will build special libraries to contain it, with medical equipment for those foolhardy to try. In a weird PMQs session, Straw’s abysmal performance was the central feature.

As a side note, the strange Commons tradition of expressing extraordinary disdain for Clegg continues apace. “I can see members ranting at the tops of their voices at the deputy prime minister,” John Bercow was forced to say at one point. “It must stop.” Bercow had an appalling PMQs, interrupting all over the place and often not for appropriate reasons – but on this occasion he was right to tackle the troublemakers. The sight of the Labour backbench propped up on the edge of their seat, their faces red with rage and the veins on their necks bulging like a mid-transformation puppet in that old Incredible Hulk TV series, is actually quite unnerving. They hate him so much now it’s as if they are about to lunge across the chamber to tear at his face. It reminded me of the ‘Two-Minute Hate’ in the film version of 1984.

If you’re a betting man, have a flutter on someone assaulting Clegg in the chamber before the end of the parliament. It’s seems unthinkable, but then we thought that about Clegg at PMQs.