PMQs sketch: Clegg’s awkward return

We sensed something new about Nick Clegg this lunchtime which we haven't seen before: a genuine discomfort at sitting next to the prime minister.

By Alex Stevenson

Politics throws up many challenges. Sometimes the only option available is to sit back, grin and take it.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg's political marriage is going through a rocky patch at the moment. Unlike many couples, who are able to hide their rows from the local gossips, this pair is in the middle of a very public bust-up.

We all know what the problem is: Cameron's nocturnal indiscretions with European leaders in the wee small hours of Friday morning. Just to make everyone sure they were getting the picture, a thoroughly gleeful Ed Miliband painted it clearly, to the delight of Labour MPs.

"I think our sympathy is with the deputy prime minister," he said. "His partner goes on a business trip, he's left waiting by the phone and he hears nothing until a rambling phone call at 4am confessing to a terrible mistake."

No wonder Clegg was looking so awkward today.

He had briefly walked out on Monday, leaving the PM alone to face the Commons and sobbing his heart out to the television cameras instead.

Now, after a clear-the-air sit-down in Cabinet yesterday, the pair are once again on speaking terms. I saw this with my own eyes in the Commons chamber a few minutes before prime minister's questions were due to start.

Cameron was pretending to be busy, leafing through his notes before the clash with Miliband began. Clegg looked as uncomfortable as ever. He straightened his red tie. He made distracted comments to the leader of the House, Sir George Young. And then it happened: the quickest, muttered phrase across to Cameron.

The PM gave a terse little nod of acknowledgement, without looking up. Ouch! Still very sore, then.

Having begun with a series of piercing questions about unemployment, Miliband couldn't resist prodding Clegg's bruises and seeing whether they hurt. "It's good to see the deputy prime minister back," he gloated. Clegg's new year's message was duly quoted back at him. "Coalition politics is not always straightforward, but I believe we're bringing in a whole new style of government," Miliband read out. Cue uproar from the benches behind him. "More!," Labour MPs yelled.

Cameron was sanguine in reply. "No one in this House is going to be surprised that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats don't always agree about Europe," he said, arching them back of his neck in the way people do when they want people to keep listening until the punchline. When it came, it was great theatre. He turned to Clegg, right arm out, and joked: "It's not like we're brothers or anything!"

The Tories loved it. Ed Miliband, who is only the leader of the opposition after taking on his elder brother David (remember him?), looked like a stuffed turkey. He gobbled:"Mr Speaker – Mr Speaker -" before being drowned in mockery by Tory laughter.

An embarrassing turnaround, really. Miliband did not do himself any favours afterwards by wrapping up with some questions about Europe. This only gave the PM another opportunity to point out the Labour leader doesn't really have a policy on whether he would have signed the treaty which Cameron rejected last week.

Last week the prime minister had started a new line of attack against Miliband's "weak" leadership. So we expected some sort of a riposte this week, and duly got it. Cameron, Miliband claimed, thinks that he's "born to rule". Ah, the inverse snobbery approach. Predictable, but effective.

It only prompted Cameron to finish with an even stronger version of his personal attack, proving the efficacy of the bullying lessons learned so well on the playing fields of Eton. "The leader of the Labour party makes weakness and indecision an art form," he scoffed. Miliband had united the Labour party behind one wish for Christmas: "a new leader".

At this Miliband's lower jaw dropped off its hinges. He looked appalled, not dismissive. Stung, not contemptuous. Exactly what you shouldn't look like at the end of your exchange with the prime minister.

Having negotiated that little patch of awkwardness with Clegg, then, things began looking much brighter for Cameron. Last week's PMQs was his toughest ever, a neverending pressure chamber of demands from his backbenches. What a transformation this was: those scowling eurosceptic faces had turned their frowns upside down. All was sweetness and light. It really was very festive.

Cameron even received a helpful question on Europe from arch-eurosceptic Philip Hollobone. "It really must be Christmas," the PM said to himself, disbelievingly. This is what happens when you veto EU treaties.

Maybe this is not such a bad week to be David Cameron, after all. You couldn't say the same thing about the man sitting next to him, absent-mindedly straightening his tie. Clegg had skipped Monday's statement because he was fed up of just sitting back and taking it. What a supreme irony, therefore, that his little act of rebellion had only made today's return to normal so much more excruciating.