Tom Richmond: Why the PM needs Clegg more than warring MPs

IF you believe the Tory spin machine, the row about the influence of Islamic conservatives in Britain’s schools – and whether such extreme teachers are indoctrinating young Muslims – is regrettable because Theresa May and Michael Gove are two of David Cameron’s most able, dependable and reliable ministers.

It is a slightly presumptuous conclusion which reflects poorly on the tribal nature of politics and lingering enmity that still exists between the Tories and their junior coalition partners ahead of the 2015 general election.

For, like it or not, the reason that this coalition is still standing more than four years after the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together in the national interest is because of the leadership of Nick Clegg, now the most unpopular person in politics.

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His decision not to walk away from the Government, a move that might have been welcomed by many of his critics, has ensured that Cameron’s administration has been in a position to cut a record Labour deficit by a third at a time of economic uncertainty while overhauling schools policy and ending the culture of welfare dependency.

In short, history is likely to be far kinder – and far more appreciative – of Cameron and Clegg than the latest opinion poll ratings.

Yet the Sheffield Hallam MP’s problem is one of perception. An intolerant and unforgiving electorate, fed up with Britain’s self-serving political elite, appears to be taking out its frustrations on the Lib Dems rather than thinking through the consequences.

Two acquaintances, both quite well-versed in politics, have said to me this week words to the effect that Cameron should sack Clegg because he’s not up to the job.

They’re entitled to their view. I asked both whether Britain would be any better off if Vince Cable was Deputy Prime Minister. The silence was deafening. They then said that the Conservatives could govern alone. When I pointed out that this was not possible as the Tories did not have a Commons majority, there was a grudging acceptance that the Lib Dems do have a role to play.

That is the challenge facing Clegg. He gave a very profound speech this week in which he set out a desire to reduce the national debt in the next Parliament – and that Britain should only borrow money to fund those infrastructure projects that will boost growth.

It is certainly worthy of further debate, and puts Labour in an even tighter corner over the economy, but the issue is whether anyone is still prepared to give him the time of the day.

For, on the need to reconfigure the public finances, Nick Clegg has been far more reliable than even the Tories could have envisaged in 2010.

AS regular readers will know, I maintain that the House of Commons select committees continue to bring out the best in Britain’s parliamentarians.

The latest example is the Public Accounts Committee exposing Michael Gove’s much-vaunted free schools, his department’s lack of financial oversight and the need, in light of Birmingham’s Trojan Horse scandal, for tests to ensure governors at every such institution are fit-and-proper to hold the position.

It is so basic that it does not reflect well on Gove’s ability to protect the interests of children. Or those MPs who backed the coalition’s legislation on free schools without giving proper thought to the twin issues of accountability and competence. Presumably, they’re so used to being told how to vote by the party whips that scrutiny has gone out of the Westminster window.

LOOKING at the unfolding bloodshed in Iraq, I was taken by the assessment of an American soldier who took part in the 2003 invasion: it was wrong of Tony Blair and George W Bush to sanction military intervention and it was wrong of Barack Obama to withdraw Allied forces prematurely. I don’t disagree.

WHAT has happened to the age of deference? I was shocked to listen to BBC Five Live presenter Stephen Nolan interviewing Labour MP Keith Vaz the other night and him simply calling the chairman of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee by his first name.

Wouldn’t Mr Vaz have been more appropriate – or is this further evidence of the BBC’s cosy relationship with Labour? After all, I’d wager a small bet that the presenter in question would not address Home Secretary Theresa May by her Christian name.

I HOPED that David Beckham’s BBC1 documentary Into The Unknown would provide a fascinating insight about Brazil – and the Amazonian rainforest. If only. This was 90 minutes of prime-time viewing in which the retired footballer moaned about his career in the spotlight and spoke of how this trip offered the solitude that he so craved. If this is so, why was his every move followed by TV cameras? I can only assume that the reasons were financial – and at the expense of BBC licence fee payers.

ONE week on and the words of 89-year-old Bernard Jordan – the D-Day ‘great escaper’ – continues to resonate after he slipped out of his care home and returned to Normandy.

“When I set my mind to do something, I do it. This is what Normandy veterans are like. Sometimes younger generations under-estimate the capabilities and spirit of my generation,” he said. “If ever there was another war, God forbid, I hope those who fought in it would do the same as I did to remember it.”

I couldn’t have put it better.