Nick Clegg ‘forgot’ he was in charge of the Government this week

Rosa Prince

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has admitted he ‘forgot’ that he was supposed to be running the country in the absence of David Cameron this week.

By Rosa Prince, Political Correspondent and James Kirkup in Oman 6:00AM GMT 24 Feb 2011

In an interview, the Liberal Democrat leader was asked whether he was in charge while the Prime Minister was away from Britain travelling in the Middle East.

Sipping from a mug marked “Deputy Prime Minister,” he said: “Yeah, I suppose I am. I forgot about that.

“I’m holding the fort but I’m hoping to take the end of the week off with my kids.

“Someone else will have to do it then. It sounds more haphazard than it probably is. People forget there are emails and there is BlackBerry.”

It later emerged that within hours of giving the interview, to the Metro newspaper, Mr Clegg did indeed go on holiday to his family chalet in the exclusive Swiss ski resort of Davos.

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He departed on Tuesday – just a day after Mr Cameron left for his tour of the Middle East.

As Labour seized on his remarks, the Deputy Prime Minister hastily returned from his Swiss half term break, where he had been joined by his wife, Miriam, and their three sons.

His aides said that he was due to land back in the UK on Thursday night – just as Mr Cameron also touched down – and the two men will attend a meeting of the National Security Council at 8.30am on Friday.

Earlier this week, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, cancelled a planned trip to the United States to take charge of the operation to help Britons leave Libya, raising questions about the lack of senior figures in Westminster during the Parliamentary recess.

The Government’s response to the crisis in Libya, and the slow evacuation of Britons stranded there, has been heavily criticised.

Mr Clegg has come under attack before over his work rate. Liberal Democrat sources suggested that he was “fragile” and needed more time off than most leading Cabinet ministers.

Last month it emerged that officials had been asked not to put papers into his ministerial box after 3pm.

Michael Dugher, a Labour MP who worked in Downing Street with Gordon Brown, said that Mr Clegg should not forget the importance of his role as second in command, adding: “He’s clueless.”

Mr Clegg’s self-confessed forgetfulness was dismissed by the Prime Minister, however, as a “throwaway remark”.

Speaking in Oman, he said: “Just because I leave the country doesn’t mean I am not in charge

“I’m not absent, that is the way Government works. In the age of the BlackBerry, the telephone, the internet, just because I leave the country doesn’t mean I am not in charge.”

Pressed further in an interview with Sky News, he insisted it was unfair to dwell on a “throwaway line” from Mr Clegg.

He went on: “The way things work is, just because I am in the Gulf doing an important tour, important in terms of promoting democracy and our values, important in terms of promoting British trade, obviously I have full connection back to the UK.

“I have been holding conference calls with the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary.

He told ITV that he and not Mr Clegg was in charge. The Prime Minister said: “I’m always on it. That’s the job. I’ve being doing conference calls. I was on the phone to the crisis centre to thank them for the work they’re doing in the idle of the night UK time.

“I have full connection with the UK. Just because I leave the country, it doesn’t mean things change. Just because the prime minister goes on an important trip to the Gulf, it doesn’t mean things change. All the relevant ministers have been in place.”

Peter Hain, the shadow Wales secretary, said: “Alarm clock Britain clearly hasn’t reached Nick Clegg. He appears to be asleep at the wheel. When he wakes up, he’ll find he’s become a bit of a joke.”