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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 January 2008, 10:07 GMT
Why Clegg's PMQs will matter
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

New Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg may not believe voters are too impressed by behaviour in the Commons chamber, particularly during prime minister's questions each Wednesday at noon.

Nick Clegg
Mr Clegg needs to make a good impression

But, as he braces himself for the first of these weekly clashes in his new role, he will also be painfully aware just how brutal they can be and how they can make or break leadership careers.

And he only has to look to his two predecessors for the most shining and excruciating examples of both.

First the bad news. Get it wrong on day one and a leader may never recover.

Just ask Sir Menzies Campbell, who came to the job with a solid reputation as a highly experienced, elder statesman fully able to command the floor of the Commons.

He fumbled his first clash with the prime minister and sparked gales of laughter with a halting performance that saw him having to admit he had just known it was going to be "one of those days".

Sadly for him, after that start, there were not going to be too many more leadership days of any sort. It wasn't question time that did for him, but it dramatically undermined his position, most dangerously amongst his own MPs.

Full time

Next the good news. Get it right and a star can be born. Just ask Vince Cable.

Sir Menzies Campbell
The pundits were merciless to Ming

The stand-in leader, who followed Sir Menzies, cast off his stuffy, bank manager image with a series of astonishingly entertaining and effective performances that saw many wondering how the Lib Dems might pull off a coup and lever him into the job full time.

In one particularly witty and brutal exchange he secured his new status as killer Cable by claiming Gordon Brown had transformed himself from Stalin to Mr Bean.

The sight of loyal Labour backbenchers virtually exploding as they tried to stifle their laughter was something to behold.

But why can this unbalanced half-hour of theatre - which always gives the prime minister the last word - have such a dramatic effect?

After all, viewing figures are hardly up there with Strictly Come Dancing (another coup for Cable after his appearance on the show, by the way).

Got it

It matters because the performance of a leader in question time can quickly determine the way he or she is perceived by MPs on all sides.

Vince Cable
Mr Cable's assaults on PM created a new star
It also sends out a subliminal message to the public, via the media, about the party - if the leader is regularly portrayed as being useless, the party must be useless as well.

That can lift backbenchers' morale, particularly for an opposition struggling to make its mark, or plunge them into further despair and, fatally, leadership plotting.

Sadly for Mr Clegg and any other party leader, there is precious little they can do to control the way this all turns out.

They can rehearse and prepare for hours on end before the event, but ultimately it boils down to one thing - they have either got it or they haven't.

And Wednesday is the day we find out whether Nick Clegg has got it.


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