When they're left to the work experience kid, apparently. Jack Straw may be a tired, awful old has-been with a large amount of previous, but even his insipid performance opposite Nick Clegg today managed to end up in a Coalition own goal around whether or not Clegg was answering Questions on behalf of the Prime Minister, himself, the Government, the Coalition or, well, anyone.

What to make of this?  First, the Number10.gov.uk website is adamant that he was presenting a pukka PMQ - today's PMQ page states (at present, I'm taking a copy):

Prime Minister’s Questions

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took the Prime Minister place in the weekly PMQs session.

Afghanistan, pensioners and benefits were on the agenda at today’s PMQs.

The Deputy Prime Minister also took questions on Sheffield Forgemasters, public funding and civil liberties

That should be fairly straightforward, then, Clegg's signed up as a mercenary for the duration, in return he gets an occasional run out to remind people that he's got a pwoper job instead of being a supplier of support to the Conservatives.  However, this evening it turns out that Number 10 haven't read their own website, or are engaged on a desperate reverse ferret, and are apparently claiming to the Daily Mirror's James Lyons that:

Clegg wasnt speaking on behalf of Government at PMQs

while the Standard's Paul Waugh, no leftie he, confirms:

Clegg PMQs fiasco gets worse. No.10 at Lobby briefing says Clegg was speaking "in a personal capacity"

You what?  What on earth could Clegg have said that would cause his own Coalition partner to disown him on his big day?  The reason is, quite definitely, claiming that the war in Iraq was illegal.  To recap on why this apparently obvious statement of the truth is a problem, consider this table:

  • Deputy PM Clegg opposed the invasion of Iraq, along with his party,
  • PM Cameron supported the invasion of Iraq, along with his party
  • Jack Straw supported the invasion of Iraq, along with most of his party

It was therefore not especially clever of Nick to have a pop at Jack over his support for the war.

Maybe he one day — perhaps we will have to wait for his memoirs — could account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all, which is the illegal invasion of Iraq.”

Senior Conservatives looked deeply uncomfortable as Mr Clegg spoke.

Such displays of pre-2010 moral high ground look, just at the moment, clangingly anachronistic.  After all, what's moral about reminding the world that you used to oppose shit made up murderous policies on principle while sitting in a government with Liam Fox, William Hague and most of all Iain Duncan Smith, who back in 2003 was claimed as:

"...George Bush's secret weapon in Great Britain. They (the Bush administration) tell him what is going on because they see he is politically correct. Tony Blair is politically correct in US eyes, but his party is incorrect. So they are using Duncan Smith to push Blair in the right direction."

Which only goes to show that Dubya's minders could spot an idiot as well as anyone else - they'd did, of course, get a lot of practice.

In truth, Clegg is in an impossible position here, and has at least taken the less weaselly path - ducking the question or changing his mind would be, personally, more damaging evidence of selling out principles for power.  After all, it's only a few months since he was lambasting Labour with stuff like:

"Days before Gordon Brown will try to defend his role at the heart of the Government that took us to war, this is yet more damning evidence against the attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq," Mr Clegg said. "The Foreign Office was clearly advising against regime change as illegal and counter to our national interest."

At least by giving Cameron's spinners a headache Clegg is standing up for his principles.  What it'll do for Coalition stability remains to be seen.

More coverage:

 - Liberal Conspiracy

 - Hague moves away, said he had a "different history" from Mr Clegg on the issue

 - Jonathan Freedland digs into the consequences