Reading the reports of Nick Clegg’s unsteady Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time performance yesterday, I wonder if his gaffes were as accidental as is being reported.
He ‘mispoke’ on two occasions: First, he announced that the Yarl’s Wood detention centre will be closed down, only to have to clarify that it would only be the (horrendous) familiy detention unit that will be abolished. Second, he referred to the “illegal invasion of Iraq” at the despatch-box in the House of Commons. Government press officers spent the rest of the day trying to conjour up a new constitutional convention that would distinguish between Clegg’s “personal” view and the government line.
Everyone is discussing Clegg’s political ineptitude, but I wonder if he has pulled off a clever feint that shifts the political debate on these two issues firmly in favour of his long held views. Closing Yarls Wood is surely a Liberal priority, so I suppose that his words could be described as a Freudian slip. But clarifying that an unpopular or morally questionable government policy will continue, rather has the effect of re-opening the debate as to whether it should continue. Clegg has given this question much greater prominence, and surely both Liberals and liberals will welcome that.
I am reminded of the fantastic stunt pulled by The Yes Men a few years ago. Adopting a tactic of “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them” the group went on TV pretending to be representatives of Dow/Union Carbide, and took full responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster. Dow had to issue a retraction, saying that they would not take responsibility for the disaster.
Meanwhile, Clegg’s “illegal” gaffe reminds me of a tactic employed by Josiah Bartlett, the West Wing‘s fictional President. In Season 3, Bartlett accidentally-on-purpose calls his election opponent an idiot. He takes the political flack and issues an apology, but questions over the other candidate’s intelligence begin to dominate the news cycles for the rest of the week. Back in real-life, the Deputy Prime Minister is certainly being criticised, but I do not see how it will dent his political capital among the Liberal Democrat MPs and party members. They believe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal and it is in their interests to establish this as consensus. Clegg’s comment unquestionably advances this aim.
So while the conventional wisdom is that Nick Clegg stumbled at his first appearance at the despatch box, it looks to me that he has advanced the Liberal Democrat agenda – at the first available opportunity, no less.