9 Mar 2011

PMQs: Don’t be vague, go for Hague

Relations – both international and domestic – are at the centre of exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions. But one key player is notable by his absence, as Peter McHugh reports.

Foreign Secretary William Hague (Reuters)

Ever since William Hague tipped us off that Colonel Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela questions have been asked about the direction of travel of the Foreign Secretary.

Even his friends have been wondering whether “Hague the Vague”, as he is now known in some quarters, has lost the plot – particularly following his less than commanding performance in the House of Commons on Monday.

Indeed matters got so bad on Wednesday that the Prime Minister said he had total confidence in him in that way so redolent of football club chairmen talking about soon-to-depart managers.

Mr Hague, true to recent form, was actually absent from public gaze when Dave chose Prime Minister’s Questions to pledge the sort of support which sends shivers down the spine of any politician with ambition.

Mr Hague…was actually absent from public gaze when Dave chose Prime Minister’s Questions to pledge the sort of support which sends shivers down the spine of any politician with ambition.

Had he popped in he would have noted that Dave had turned up expecting trouble as he had his bruiser-in-chief – Chancellor George – firmly by his side. George is always there to stiffen backbones when times are tough.

Mood is always important for the weekly theatre that is PMQs and now and again it is preceded by just the right sort of scene setter to get the House into the right spirit.

It is, therefore, always a pleasure to follow Scottish Questions, when members from north of the border speak to each other in tongues and swap quaint – if not fully translatable – insults.

Since the ruling party in the Coalition can count the number of Scottish representatives it has on the fingers of one finger it is one of the few times that the Lib Dem part of the horse can ride to the rescue.

Old Firm game

If you turn up early for PMQs you could be forgiven for thinking that MPs gave a hootenanny about Scotland, but what they really are doing is getting a good seat for the Old Firm game that follows.

The whistle went and Ed Miliband kicked off with a list of recent less-than-impressive Foreign Office interventions over Libya, including using the SAS to lead a diplomatic mission by military helicopter to Benghazi at two o’clock in the morning, when they could have taken a taxi from the port.

Ed, who is developing a nice line in restrained questioning,wanted to know who was in the frame for this particular cock-up. Was it perhaps our missing man from the FO?

“I take total responsibility,” said the Prime Minister, as his side read the signals that William would not want to have too many similar protestations of support.

If William was feeling unloved, all he had to do was glance to Dave’s right and see slumped in his seat Ming the merciless who, despite signing up to the Coalition, had gone out of his way on Tuesday to question if the Foreign Secretary had the appetite for the job.

Dave looked a bit rattled and Ed was up on his feet again to say there seemed to be a “deafening silence” about the performance of his man at the FO over the less-than-diplomatic mission.

That silence lasted about two seconds before Dave – suddenly breathing fire and brimstone – made it clear he wasn’t going to be out-bullied by a state school amateur.

He only knew one person who had knifed a Foreign Secretary: “And I’m looking at him,” he bellowed – to the obvious pleasure of George, who looked as if he had thought up the line in the first place.

The Labour and Tory sides were both momentarily non-plussed by the insult, until they realized Dave was talking about Ed’s not-so-dearly departed brother David.

Ed, well prepared for once for the insult said he had “a second cousin in Belgium” Dave had yet to have a go at. You could see George intended to make enquiries as soon as PMQs were done.

The Labour leader did his usual confusing number on home affairs, allowing him into his pre-prepared sound bite about the Prime Minister. “He might act like he is born to rule but the truth is he’s not very good at it.”

Dave, obviously well aware that he was born to rule, treated this comment with all the contempt he could muster and slapped Ed down with a reminder that his still-sulking brother had said only last night that the Left in Europe was “losing arguments and direction”.

Sitting silently throughout was the other recently gone-missing link of the Coalition – the Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

He has not been seen much since he “forgot” he was in charge, as the Libyan crisis unfolded and instead went ski-ing in Switzerland.

His boss has to play a canny hand with Nick these days, since many Tories believe Dave is spending far too much time eating lentils rather than raw meat.

Alternative views

Just to prove the point, Tory MP Neil Carmichael asked if he agreed the Alternative Vote system would be wrong and distort election results.

Nick, who has made it clear this is one of the many red-line issues that will not cause a rift in the Coalition or cause him to give up his job, stared at the floor with a sickly smile as Dave gleefully agreed.

Floor-gazing well down the front bench was another of the Lib Dem former Coalition stars Vince Cable, out of sorts and virtually out of sight since he gossiped about taking on Rupert Murdoch.

With Rupert now virtually guaranteed the multi-billion pound take-over of BskyB he pledged to oppose, the Business Secretary seems to be edging his way towards the exit.

Perhaps he can ask William if that ticket to Venezuela is still available.

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was last year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.