Clegg’s PMQs unravels

By Alex Stevenson

Nick Clegg’s apparently strong debut at prime minister’s questions has slowly disintegrated as government officials watered down and distanced themselves from his comments.

The Liberal Democrat leader appeared to have seen off attacks from Jack Straw over withdrawn government funding for Sheffield Forgemasters.

Review our as-it-happened coverage of PMQs here

But Mr Clegg, the first Liberal politician to speak for the government at prime minister’s questions since David Lloyd George in the 1920s, soon found himself embroiled in controversy as the full impact of his remarks about the “illegal” 2003 invasion of Iraq sunk in.

Clegg’s Iraq jibe fuels coalition tensions

In response to one of Mr Straw’s questions, Mr Clegg said: “We may have to wait for his memoirs, but perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all: the illegal invasion of Iraq.”

The prime minister’s spokesman sought to distance Downing Street from the deputy prime minister’s comments, suggesting he was advancing a personal opinion which did not reflect the government’s view.

In a separate development, it emerged that Mr Clegg’s pledge that the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre would be closed was unfounded.

Confusion as Home Office waters down Yarl’s Wood closure news

The Home Office said only the family unit would be shut down. A spokesperson said: “Yarl’s Wood family unit will be closed, but the centre will continue to function as an immigration removal facility for adults.”

In another surprising development, the deputy prime minister was insistent that British forces would be out of combat roles in Afghanistan by 2015, after Mr Straw sought reassurance that the eventual exit would be “conditional” on progress being made.

“No timetable can be chiselled in stone but we are absolutely determined, given how long we’ve been in Afghanistan,… we must be out of a combat role by 2015,” he said.

Coalition raises expectations for Afghan exit

Earlier Mr Straw had sought a clarification from Mr Clegg over the cancellation of a £90 million loan to manufacturing firm Sheffield Forgemasters.

The government had justified the move by claiming its owners were not prepared to dilute their shareholdings, which the firm has now denied.

Confronted with the issue, Mr Clegg said Mr Straw was living in “complete denial” and blamed the Labour government for failing to manage the economy or “sort out the banks” who could have provided finance.

PMQs sketch: Clegg slaps a dead fish

“He may bellow as much as he likes,” Clegg replies calmly. “I am happy to account for everything we are doing in this coalition government.”