Long practice has given Harman some skill, and even self-possession, at the dispatch box. She had an exceptionally easy target today. As she stood up to give Slick Nick a roasting, the streets around parliament were swelling with angry university-goers waving photos of Clegg signing his fateful election pledge on fees. The LibDem manifesto was being burned in public. Yellow election placards were being trampelled and spat on. A makeshift gallows was cobbled together and a Nick Clegg dummy was ceremonially hanged (despite the NSU’s stance on the death penalty.)
In the House, it was make or break for Nick. Labour were waiting for him with a fully orchestrated attack. Tom Greatorex ironically recalled ‘how important consistency is to the deputy PM.’ Emily Thornberry, posing as a kindly neighbour, invited him to explain his flip-floppery to Islington’s students. ‘When exactly did he change his mind?’ Gavin Shuker accused him of tripling student debt and recommended that he accept a summons to meet the student leaders. ‘I meet student leaders all the time,’ protested Nick, sounding like a faithless father trying to pose as a family man.
Harman adopted a tone of pantomime outrage rather than all-out hostility. This may be significant. If Labour breaks permanently with the LibDems any chance of a future LibLab pact will vanish. Hattie’s ribald teasing - ‘those wicked Tories led them astray’ – is an approach that carries the seeds of forgiveness and preserves the possibility of a presidential pardon for the LibDems after the next election. She dressed this up as a gag, likening the coalition deal to Freshers’ Week. ‘You know how it is. You meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things you regret.’
Labour responded with wild and triumphant jeers. Faced with the opposition in fully cry, Clegg never looked less than composed. Houdini had done his homework. He emphasized the advantages to the poor of his ‘progressive’ policy. He imposed himself on the House very effectively and took us on a nostalgic tour through Labour’s decade of pledge-crimes on education. They opposed tuition fees in 1997. Then they introduced them. They did the same switcheroo with top-up fees in 2001. And they supported the Browne review, then changed tack and opposed it.
For Clegg it was a deft piece of escapology. Outside in Parliament Square the chants of the students rose impotently into the vacant skies. Hopefully they’ll enjoy their awayday. The march will make a change from sharing washing-up duties and lines of coke and downloaded dissertations and venereal diseases. Perhaps the lucky ones will have got caught up in the mini-riot and see themselves being baton-charged on News at Ten. They may even learn a useful lesson. Only the powerless will listen to them this afternoon. The Labour party will pose as their champions. But Labour have cheated on students more often than anyone in government. Today is a triumph of bad faith.
Update: Met police statement on Sky News. 'A small number of protesters have caused minor damage to property at 30, Millbank'. NUS President: Shame on those who are here to cause trouble. Sky's live reporter describes ‘lots of burning material in the building forecourt. A thin line of officers conducting a hold-and-contain operation. There aren’t enough officers for a baton charge.’