Lloyd Evans

Harman’s rivals will have relished her inept PMQs performance

Harman's rivals will have relished her inept PMQs performance
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Vintage PMQs today. A decent debate, good jokes and a clear winner. With Brown in America practising his lecture-circuit speech on Congress, his beloved colleague and would-be assassin, Hattie Harman stepped up. She made a sloppy start and forgot to mention yesterday’s massacre in Lahore. A sleek, well-briefed Hague used his first question to remind her, and Harman was forced to offer belated condolences.

Hague then loaded his crossbow with a shaft about lending agreements. The government had promised to ‘help businesses now’ so why hadn’t a single loan been guaranteed? Harman floundered and murmured, ‘Provisions under that scheme are being finalised.’ Squalls of jeers greeted this defensive shimmy. She waffled on about the deferment of tax payments, extra help for pensioners and – drawing even louder jeers – the VAT cut. Hague skewered her with facts and figures. The loan scheme ‘was supposed to be operational by 1st March but the government only applied for clearance from Brussels last week.’ Repeating her previous error, Hattie made a queasy, pedestrian reply. ‘This scheme will come into operation’.

She’s clearly uncomfortable with the physical arrangement of PMQs. Squads of grinning Tories yelling abuse at her doesn’t suit the Harman temperament. But, having survived two questions without melting through the floorboards, she tried to grab the initiative and complained that Hague was focusing on a single policy while the government had stacks of life-saving measures to offer. Hague hit back and highlighted four schemes, including mortage relief for the unemployed, that had been postponed, and to everyone’s delight he then moved onto the expected gags about Brown’s absence. ‘When Chamberlain lost the confidence of his party, Churchill replaced him. When Eden crossed the Atlantic, Supermac took over. This could be her moment.’ To save herself Hattie needed an instant, witty and pertinent reply. She said, ‘He’s raised a very important question of mortgage support.’ It sounded even more hopeless than it reads here.

She then tried to regain the moral high ground but Hague was waiting for her. ‘He concentrates on political gossip,’ she scolded, ‘while we’re fighting for Britain’s future.’ Hague: ‘She shouldn’t describe her leadership campaign as political gossip.’ Loud hilarity. Then Hague overmilked the joke. ‘That’s not the way to win these things...’ Labour howls reminded him that ultimately he’d lost the leadership, ‘Yes,’ he said calmly. ‘I know. I’m only a deputy now but at least I’m a loyal one.’ That finished Harman. She managed to remind the house that Hague had accepted £30,000 from RBS for two after-dinner speeches but the shouting match that ensued was a draw.

Vince Cable mocked her effectively for wanting to introduce ‘Harriet’s Law’ to recoup Sir Fred’s pension rather than using existing negligence rules. And Elfyn Llwyd pointedly asked what Sir Fred had got his knighthood for. ‘The Prince’s Trust,’ said Hattie with a rare show of humour, ‘not in recognition of his services to banking.’ Diligent respondents on this site have already suggested that the award was indeed for ‘services to banking’.

Harman spent the rest of the session underlining her ineptness as a parliamentarian. When improvising, she spouts banalities which are oddly stressed and hard on the ear. She prefers notes but reads so badly that one instinctively checks to see if her tongue isn’t out and her finger tracing the words along the page. When David Jones asked about the new mandatory identification system for sheep, Scatty seemed desperate to conceal the fact that she’d never heard of sheep, let alone identification. ‘I know that identification of sheep is very important, as part of infection control. And this is a serious issue therefore I will ask, I, I will ask the minister to write to him.’ Geoffrey Robinson chortled his way through a few observations about the loan guarantee scheme and Scatty replied, ‘I think my honourable friend makes very important points and I would have liked to have given those points as my answer to a previous question.’ Batty!

A champagne moment for the halt-Hattie campaign.