Hague was a washout at PMQs today. The wittiest performer on the front benches failed to lift the house with a single joke. Since ditching the after-dinner circuit, perhaps he no longer needs parliament to advertise his stand-up skills. Opposite him Hattie Harman was her usual lumpen self, slow and predictable, full of stumbles, repetitions and false starts. Her mental dexterity is so poor she gives the impression that talking in complete sentences is a skill she has only just mastered.
Hague took her to task on footling, no-brainer issues. The house is rising too early, he said. Unbelievable. He wants to mount an attack on this knackered, directionless government and he chooses the calendar. Harman’s answer – the house is also returning early – was as limp as the question. Hague then asked if Labour intends to copy Tory plans to criminalise those caught in possession of ‘illegally harvested timber.’ A new crime. Hattie was keen, of course. But are the Tories seriously proposing to jail people whose mahogany table fails to satisfy some arbitrary eco-statute? This could be the ruin of the north London dinner party circuit. It’s bizarre that legislators don’t know how laws like this work in real life. Whenever a new inspectorate is born another black market – in bogus certificates of compliance – slithers into the world with lusty cries.
Hague couldn’t find a way to hurt Harman today. In her bumbling but single-minded fashion she managed to change the subject and portray the Conservatives as a party of tax-dodging millionaires who cosy up to questionable allies in the EU. She got away with it too. But Hague wasn’t even trying.
Vince Cable asked a pertinent question about tax evasion which HMRC reckons costs us £40bn a year. Hattie deliberately misunderstood the question and blamed the reduced tax-take on ‘the global recession’. David Heathcoat-Amory mocked the new Fiscal Responsibility Bill by asking if failure to meet its provisions would result in ministers being fined. This wonderful joke was too exquisitely cerebral for the tenor of today’s insipid debate.
Another Tory backbencher, Ann McIntosh, stood up looking even more aristocratic than her high-born opponent and made an oblique and rather laboured point involving Copenhagen, Hans Christian Andersen and global warming. ‘Does she have a favourite fairy-tale? The Emperor’s New Clothes?’ asked the Duchess of McIntosh glowering angrily from beneath a costly crust of face paint. ‘We can learn a lesson from fairytales,’ said Hattie, ‘Avoid the Brothers Grimm which is what we’d get if the Tories won …’ Labour loved that. Convinced she now had a reputation as a wit she listened carefully to Nigel Evans’s request that the PM cheer us up over Christmas by calling a general election. ‘That turkey won’t fly,’ quipped Hattie.
The only moment of drama came as the session closed. The defence secretary Bob Ainsworth, who with his strange little moustache looks like a bank manager dressed up as Hitler, got to his feet to make a statement. Members swarmed for the exits. ‘Bob Ainsworth’ is a weapon with two settings. His name, or his title, ‘Secretary of State for Defence’ can clear a building faster than a mortar attack. Perhaps we should use him to flush out the Taleban.