David Cameron and William Hague got into similar trouble, but for exactly opposite reasons. If the Foreign Secretary had said “stupid person” or (admittedly a bit of a mouthful for an impromptu sedentary aside) “stupid Honourable Member”, he’d be home free. As the lip reading consensus was that he muttered “stupid woman” while Cameron was answering, or more accurately not answering, a hostile question from Labour’s Cathy Jamieson, he quickly became Twitter villain of the day.
Cameron’s fatal error, by contrast, was to be, er, gender-unspecific. How he must have kicked himself for saying that Andy Murray was the first “player” to win Wimbledon in 77 years. If only he had used the shorter, correct, and in this case utterly uncontroversial “man”. Then Ed Miliband would not have pointed out, unable to contain his glee, that Murray’s triumph was the first since “Virginia Wade’s victory in 1977”.
But was twitterdom a bit unfair on Hague? Is “stupid woman” so much more terrible than “stupid man?” And what about Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army repeatedly calling Private Pike “stupid boy”. Should this be banned as ageist.
What’s a little puzzling about the rage over the two words uttered by Hague is that “woman” is the one it focused on. For Ms Jamieson’s question, on whether the businessman “Mr Aidan Heavey’s donations to the Conservative party had any influence on the Foreign Secretary’s intervention in his company’s tax dispute” [with the Ugandan tax authorities] was hardly “stupid”.
It certainly played into the theme of the day, the most raucous in recent memory. If Phil Spector invented the “wall of sound”, MPs produced what Speaker John Bercow condemned as a “wall of noise”. And this time, Miliband, with Labour freshly liberated – not to mention soon to be impoverished — by his decision to allow trade unionists to choose whether to pay into the party, got the better of it, as far as you could judge amid the kind of deafening braying which would embarrass the Millwall Den.
Would Cameron now accept a £5,000 cap on donations? No, because it would mean “a massive amount of taxpayer support for political parties”. Was it a “coincidence” that hedge funds had a “£145m tax cut” after donating “£25m” to the Tories? The “big difference” was that union donations to Labour “buy votes at your conference, buy candidates and MPs in this House, and pay for the votes that gave him his job”. This was Cameron’s technique throughout. To bypass the questions by turning everything back on the unions once again. What had he promised the hedge fund behind the Circle Health company, Labour’s Andy Sawford asked, in return for an “£863,000 donation to the Tory party?”
“Let me give you the figures,” Cameron shouted back: “£8m from Unite; £4m from GMB; and £4m from Unison.” Crude, and for his backbenchers no doubt still effective. But not as effective as last week.
Video: Edwina Currie on MPs' pay