Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Can Clegg answer some PMQs "in a personal capacity"?

I am seeing reports on Twitter (e.g. here) that a Number 10 spokesperson has claimed that Nick Clegg was speaking "in a personal capacity" during PMQs today, I think regarding the legality of the Iraq war.

Here is exactly what he said taken from Hansard:

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman may bellow as much as he likes. I am happy to account for everything that we are doing in this coalition Government—a coalition Government who have brought together two parties, working in the national interest, to sort out the mess that he left behind. 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.

He makes reference to various things that the government is doing using the term "we". He then concludes by accusing Jack Straw of having been involved in the "illegal invasion of Iraq".

Some people on the Live Chat I was running at the time commented that it was amusing to see Hague and Osborne sitting alongside Clegg as he said those words knowing that they had both voted for the invasion.

Is it feasible though to have a government minister standing at the dispatch box, answering questions on behalf of the Prime Minister/government and then a few hours later have those words "clarified" as a personal statement?

Perhaps we are coming up against a problem of having a coalition government formed of two parties which in some areas have very different views about issues, Iraq being one of them. Clegg's parliamentary colleagues of the party he leads would overwhelmingly have supported this statement but of course the massed Tory ranks behind him will not have done. In fact I think it is more accurate to say that Clegg was speaking in a "Lib Dem capacity".

Perhaps it is OK for ministers to say things that are not directly aligned with government policy. Maybe that is something that will have to be accommodated as part of the "new politics". It would certainly be a novel approach but would appear to sit uncomfortably with our existing procedures and structures. However, as I have argued before collective responsibility can be ridiculously constraining sometimes even when the government is formed of only one party.

Of course this is now being interpreted as a "gaffe" and Labour activists are having a field day with it. I do think the government needs to be clearer about what it is doing with respect to this.

It has unfortunately overshadowed what was otherwise a very good performance by Nick Clegg.


Unknown said...

You don't see that going the other way against Labour and helping the Lib Dems? If I were (a type of) cynical, I would say that such a statement was made accidentally on purpose. At a time when Lib Dems are hurting in the polls because of their attachment to the Tories, this lets their former supporters (of 3 months ago) get a better idea of what coalition means.

Chris Shaw said...

The format for PMQ (as with all question/answer sessions in the house) is to ask a question and then follow it with related supplemental questions. The first question to the PM is always about his engagements for the day so that he cannot dodge the supplemental questions that come after.

Nick Clegg answered the first question as follows:

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the United States for meetings with President Obama and briefings on Afghanistan.

Surely this implies that all the supplemental questions and answers that followed are then spoken on behalf of the prime minister? There doesn't appear to be any room for a personal opinion as far as I can see. All answers that follow the first one are effectively the prime ministers words. This may mean that Cameron has to come back to the house to "clarify" one of "his answers" if it turns out to be incorrect.