Sketch: Deputy Clegg neither shaken nor stirred

Given the wide range of policies on which Nick Clegg is hopelessly vulnerable, opposition politicians are not being nearly successful enough in disturbing his placid composure.

By Alex Stevenson

But then that is the rule of thumb for the new politics, isn’t it? In a world where coalitions roam the earth anything is possible, as the deputy prime minister proved in his 30-minute grilling by MPs this afternoon.

The opposition failed on tuition fees, which all Liberal Democrats MPs look like voting to increase despite signing a declaration before the general election that they would not do so. “Of course I wouldn’t regret making a promise, in this case making a pledge, I now find we are unable to [keep],” Clegg said, not breaking sweat.

The opposition failed on cuts to housing benefit, which Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes has been bitterly opposed to. Clegg found himself formally addressing the Speaker and staring at the opposition benches, while his actual audience – Hughes – was seated to his right. The malcontent-in-chief sat with his right arm stuffed into his jacket, like Nelson, trying not to twitch too visibly. Clegg, now a veteran of this sort of thing, kept a straight face too.

The opposition failed on votes at 16, which the Lib Dems are extremely enthusiastic of at a party level. Most young people are liberal, after all. But the government was not prepared to give the vote to teenagers either in the referendum or general elections, as Labour MPs suggested to him today. “You’re right, there are different views in this government,” Clegg shrugged. “I so happen to be a supporter of votes at 16… we’ve been very open about the fact that there are differences of views on this.”

Gary Streeter, a Conservative backbencher, put flesh on the bones of this prognosis. He lamented young people’s interest in the X Factor and not the Commons. I know which I’d rather spend two hours watching on a Saturday night. Not according to Streeter, who advocated withholding the vote until the ‘youngstas’ show a “greater commitment to democracy”.

It was telling, then, that a Tory was proving at least as effective as Her Majesty’s Opposition in exposing the contradictions which now make up Clegg’s political personality. Even his smoking habits, which were revealed by half a year ago and then re-revealed by Desert Island Discs this week, were raised by Conservative MP Philip Davies. “I wasn’t going to turn to the sensitive issue, at least in my household, of smoking,” Clegg muttered.

While Harriet Harman, now a shadow of her former glories, kept her eye in with a question about 500,000 job losses in the private sector (Clegg said two million would be created), the equally veteran Jack Straw had his own tactic. He has taken up the opposition seat formerly occupied by the Tory grandee of grandees Sir Peter Tapsell. “We are allowing people on housing benefit…” Clegg explained at one point. “Allowing? I thought he said allowing!” Straw yelped. “Allowing? Allowing!” Proceedings continued undisturbed.

The best blows were landed by the new frontbench team of Sadiq Khan and Chris Bryant, two up-and-coming smart-suited young hopefuls. They picked up an old chestnut – the “gerrymandering” by which constituency changes will result in Labour losing most of the 50 seats being culled. Bryant was especially extreme when it came to fighting Clegg’s “niggardly proposals on welfare reform which will turn London into Paris”.

Of course! The Gallic shrugging, the cigarettes, the banlieues of Greater London; it all made sense! Bryant painted a horrific picture of the poor being “cleansed” out of London.

Queue liberal uproar. Hyperbole is all very well, Clegg boomed righteously, “but to refer to cleansing will be deeply offensive…” Bryant was being “outrageous”, he shouted. Labour MPs responded with the worst insult they could think of. “Tory! Tory!” they yelled as he continued, unabashed and undeterred.

It is the nature of politics that, where the opposition may have looked like they lost, their arguments might one day filter through to the ballot box. The cumulative impact of Clegg’s Tory tie-up could yet see this calamity fall upon orange heads. For now, though, it felt as if that day would never come. By the time Lib Dem busybody Jo Swinson nabbed the final question it was clear Clegg had reached the home straight.

La Swinson was concerned that MPs could bring swords, but not newborn children, into the voting lobbies. Clegg allowed a wry smile to flicker across his face as he wrapped up with a luxuriously sarcastic reply. “I can’t readily see a government position or an amendment to the coalition agreement being drafted on that.”