I’d be tempted to call it listless. But everyone was reading from lists. At today’s rather sleepy PMQs I counted six MPs who recorded their sympathy for those affected by the recent tragedies in Afghanistan and Camberwell. The Speaker needs to act or these sessions will turn into Prime Minister’s Condolences.
Gordon Brown’s in Italy, saving the world, so Harriet Harman took his place and gave her much-loved impersonation of a rather tetchy duchess supervising the kitchen while Cook recovers from hives. William Hague, unsurprisingly, took her to task on the government’s investment plans and invited her to ‘translate into plain English’ the Prime Minister’s claim that spending in 2013 would rise by ‘zero percent’. Having had a whole week to prepare her answer, Harman said, ‘All the figures are set out in the Budget book.’ The House laughed, but with dismay rather than delight.
Harman then accused the Tories of being in government. ‘They have proposals to cut public investment – this year! – just when the economy needs it most.’ A moment later she changed her mind and decided the Tories are in opposition. ‘The shadow Chancellor spends 40 percent of his time thinking about economics, that is doing nothing.’ Hague came straight back at her. ‘Perhaps she could spend 100 percent of the next minute answering the question.’
This was his only real flash of humour today. It’s not clear whether he regards Harman as an unworthy opponent or if his innate courtesy prevents him from giving the duchess a serious monstering. But it’s a shame we never see the silver-tongued, nimble-witted Hague who used to duff Blair up every week. With dogged politeness he pursued his pre-planned strategy and tried to get Harman to admit that spending would fall not rise. ‘The reason for the figures,’ she bumbled, ‘is because we are bringing forward capital spending.’ She suggested that the Tories would do nothing ‘to protect hard-working business people’ and she fantasised about the ‘500,000’ extra jobs that would have been lost under Tory plans. Nifty tactic that. Dream up a jobless total and pin it on the opposition. It’s sly and disingenuous enough to work.
Vince Cable made a rather complicated joke about Silvio Berlusconi being presented with an Italian translation of Harman’s policy on gender equality by Gordon Brown. Hmm. The LibDems laughed politely. Everyone else scratched their heads. Then he made a good point very forcefully. ‘Why not stop bonuses in publicly owned companies?’ Harman dithered with charming hauteur. ‘We expect to see restraint at top of public sector.’ Gooh-oh, Hattie. That’s that sorted.
Having survived the assaults of her chief inquisitors she relaxed a bit and spent the rest of the session being compassionate and reminding us of the government’s smiling and munificent nature. Sacked dockworkers are being given a big hug. Sustainable homes are rising from drained swamps. Fat cheques are fluttering towards the victims of pension scandals. And so on.
Harman is a phenomenal politician. Rarely can a public figure have acquired so much self-belief with so little justification. Economics is a mystery to her. Ditto most areas of policy. Take defence. A question from John Maples about the purpose of our Afghan mission had her jabbering about ‘the mountainous regions surrounding Pakistan.’ Everyone likes Hattie, of course, and she’s perfectly marvellous if you need a posh gal to beat her breast and tear her raiments and express her heart-felt sympathy for busy mums, struggling orphans, oppressed Moslem womenfolk and northerners with industrial diseases. But otherwise she’s hopeless. So watch out everyone. The country’s being run by an Oxfam volunteer.