Defiant Clegg clarifies Iraq ‘personal opinion’

By Alex Stevenson

Nick Clegg has clarified his description of the Iraq war as “illegal” in last week’s prime minister’s questions was his “personal opinion”.

The deputy prime minister was speaking on behalf of the government when he made the unexpected statement on the “illegal invasion of Iraq” last Wednesday.

No 10 quickly distanced itself from the statement, which clashed with the Conservative party’s support of the 2003 ousting of Saddam Hussein.

Mr Clegg’s Liberal Democrats had opposed the war. He was confronted on the issue in the Commons during deputy prime minister’s questions by Labour MP Hugh Bayley.

“I am happy to confirm that what I said last week at prime minister’s questions was a personal opinion,” Mr Clegg said, to laughter from opposition MPs.

“Members opposite may laugh but I welcome the fact they are asking questions about that disastrous decision now,” the deputy prime minister added.

“It would have been handy if they’d asked those questions when the decision was being taken.”

Mr Clegg, the first Liberal politician to have spoken for the government since David Lloyd George in the 1920s, made the original comment without prompting on the issue from shadow justice secretary Jack Straw.

In today’s deputy prime minister’s questions he also faced questioning on the coalition’s plans to reduce the number of MPs in the Commons from the current 650 to 600.

Labour MPs are angry about the proposals because of the boundary changes which will be required. They fear the incomplete electoral register, worse in urban areas, will mean constituency boundaries could shift away from their advantage.

“This is a straight gerrymander,” former home secretary David Blunkett told Mr Clegg, adding that the government should delay making boundary changes until a full compulsory register is completed “based on where people actually live”.

“It cannot be right to have constituencies in which the worth of people’s votes are so very different from place to place,” Mr Clegg responded.

“Fairness is a simple principle we should operate… over a third of members here are already in line with the new rules. What is wrong with fairer votes across the whole of the country?”

He added: “Members opposite who are making a lot of noise now did nothing to improve the electoral register in 13 years.”

The deputy prime minister also confirmed he would be in charge of the country while prime minister David Cameron goes on holiday for the second half of August.

“He remains in charge… but I will be available to hold the fort,” Mr Clegg said.