William Hague met Harriet Harman at PMQs. They were like old lovers bumping into each other at a party. The tension had vanished and little remained but warm mutual regard. Harman led on health rationing and Hague chose not to retaliate, as Cameron surely would have, by demanding to know why she hadn’t mentioned the fall in unemployment.
Hague was all smiles and sunniness today. Harman wanted to know how he’d explain to a patient needing a new hip that the NHS couldn’t afford to operate. ‘Wait in pain? Or pay and go private?’ she suggested. Hague said that the rationing of services was a breakthrough pioneered by the last Labour government.
This prompted Harman to travel back in time and to boast that, ‘Labour builds up the NHS and the Tories drag it down.’ True enough, agreed Hague, if you equate the NHS with NHS managers. Administrators had risen twice as fast under Labour as the number of clinicians. And he mentioned that MRSA — a bacterial room-service introduced by Tony Blair — had declined rapidly under the Tories.
The nation’s GPs will be out on strike tomorrow and this offered Harman and Hague a perfect chance give the quacks a roasting. Both of them ducked. To many observers it’s baffling to see doctors resisting higher pension contributions when their pensions have to last longer than anyone else’s. Medics pick up lots of coffin-dodging ruses while plying their trade so they get more time on earth than the wheezing, spluttering, arterio-sclerotic wrecks who hobble into their surgeries and pay their wages.
Longer withdrawals should mean bigger deposits. Simple enough.
But the GPs got off lightly. When Hague invited Harman to condemn the go-slow, she came over all Mother Teresa. ‘We don’t want patients to suffer,’ she simpered, ‘so we don’t want doctors to go on strike.’
Peter Bone (Con, Wellingborough) changed the subject. He proposed a divorce from ‘the Yellow Peril’ and called for Tories to junk the LibDems and form a minority government. Most striking about this gauntlet was the mood of chortling indifference that greeted it. Tories muttered in amusement. Labour laughed a little. A few LibDems grumbled surreptitiously. But most LibDems seem to find being insulted in the house infinitely preferable to being ignored in the country.
Simon Hughes accidentally addressed Hague as the deputy prime minister. With a twinkle, Hague promised not to betray the slip to Nick Clegg. ‘It will remain within these four walls,’ he said glancing at the TV cameras.
Katy Clark (Labour, N Ayrshire) asked Hague to confirm that Italy and Britain are the only EU states in the grip of the Double Dip. Blithely ignoring the question, Hague produced a set of growth figures so optimistic they might have referred to bamboo. Some wonk in the IMF, he claimed, had predicted that this year our performance would comfortably out-strip France and Germany. Next year we’ll catch up with America. And our overall figures will be twice that of the Eurozone. Can that be true? Perhaps the euphoric Hague made it up on the spot.
It’s said that Hague hasn’t entirely abandoned his leadership ambitions. And today he delivered a quiet reminder of Cameron’s main shortcomings. The foreign secretary doesn’t need anger management classes. He’s smooth and articulate without oozing privilege. He has a sure grasp of detail. He can sound sincere, and sympathetic, and statesmanlike too, (or pompous, if you prefer). And he can serve up the boring blocking answers until the light bulbs go pop.
His wit and his complete unflappability are his trump cards. He never lets the House get to him. And he underplayed the whole thing as well. This was, in no sense, a naked pitch for his party’s attention. That makes it more threatening.
Cameron will want to return to the front bench ASAP.Tags: David Cameron, Harriet Harman, Health, PMQs, William Hague