The Sketch: Laughed at on his debut, Ming never really recovered from there

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The Independent Online

Ming always looked a bit like a memento mori; now he lives on in at least two leaders' minds as an awful warning. To Brown, he shows it's not as easy as it looks being a party leader. And to Cameron – well, it was Ming who gave the second-best speech of the conference season.

It shows what a mystery politics is: a lifetime in the Commons doesn't prepare you for being leader.

More than anyone, the late Eric Forth felled him. It was with a joke, a heckle, that took the legs out from underneath Sir Ming. Whatever qualities Sir Ming had, his first two outings at Prime Minister's Questions destroyed him. They created a reputation or an expectation he could never shake off.

Whatever he had been before (dignified, august, decent) he became in two instants someone who Parliament wanted to bully. His first question on his first outing came before his election while he was acting leader. He asked about "acting heads of schools".

I've never heard such laughter in the Commons.

After the briefest pause, the House made the connection. The noise was not just very loud it was very, very long. It died down twice and seemed to be finishing but came swelling up again. It must have been a minute, which is not a very long time in politics but is about 100,000 years when you're being laughed at in the House of Commons; it was certainly more than long enough to come up with a response that would save his reputation.

But nothing came to mind. He reached back into his store and the cupboard was bare.

His second outing the following week concerned pensions. Andrew Mackay, I think from above on the Tory benches had been looking down and seen Ming's written notes. He passed the information back to Eric Forth behind him. No sooner had the word "pensions" been uttered than Forth said, in his quiet, carrying voice: "Declare your interest."

The laughter that followed was more damaging than the previous week's because it created a habit and, in the Commons, things only have to happen three times to become a tradition.

We didn't really hear anything else from Ming for the rest of his tenure.

What did he lack, then? Ease? Energy? Penetration? Yes, no doubt, all those things are important. But what he lacked most from our position in the gallery was the ability to command the House.

It's a big brute of a place; it's a beast, like all mobs. First and foremost, it's emotional. Reason helps a Commons performance, intellect is useful but the people who do well in Parliament instil a sense that they can hurt those who interrupt. That's why David Cameron gave Hilary Armstrong such a sharp smack on his first day up.

Ming managed it more than once, in the first session after the recess. A grimacing Gordon Brown rubbed his face in the big-tent discussions that had done Ming so much damage earlier in the year.

I think Ming had been flirting with the idea of being Foreign Secretary after the snap election they'd been thinking about. "My door is always open," Brown said in reply to some question or other; it was a response he'd prepared earlier. But Ming replied sardonically off the cuff: "More of a trap door," and caused quite a fluttering of fans around the House.

Then a Labour goon heckled him on civil liberties with a groaning, "Oh, dear!" and Ming walloped him with an assurance that would have created his leadership had it happened on his first time out.

But timing is everything in politics, as in life. Ave atque vale, Sir Mingus.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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