The Sketch: Maude makes a mess of his moment in the spotlight

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The Independent Online

The Government would have been pleased with that debate. The whips did well. Get in there, they would have said, make as much noise as you can, do that yelping thing, and the whooping, lots of barracking, and give us two volunteers to get your kit off not you, Pound. Remember, we're fighting for the dignity of politics, the noble cause. Sion, you've been mud-wrestling with pigs, you kick it off.

Of all of them, Francis Maude alone did not disappoint. He is the outstanding performer in his class. Not since Theresa May failed against Stephen Byers has a front-bench spokesman made so little of such material. Harriet Harman should be wandering around the Palace looking for her support, her career, her head. The idea that she might not have to resign has been given a sudden, wholly unjustifiable boost. The magic of Maude.

There were some telling points made. Angus MacNeil asked whether the money had been repaid. Had the money left the Labour Party's account, he asked (that's framing it very carefully). Jack Straw didn't know. We'll take that as a no. Stephen O'Brien asked about the tax status of the donors Lord Patel and Sir Ronald Cohen. That was a matter between them and the Inland Revenue. And John Redwood asked why the PM's campaign team ripped up that cheque but recommended the donor to Harman's campaign. "I'm very happy to tell the police," Jack Straw said, probably adding, "But not you, mate."

But these little flashes were overwhelmed by the heckling, the obstructive interventions, the noise. Had a Labour minister been on the receiving end I doubt the Speaker would have allowed it. In this atmosphere Francis Maude dropped his best lines where they sank without a protest.

He told us that over half of union members vote for parties other than Labour. That only three unions out of 17 tell their members they don't have to pay the political levy that goes to Labour. And that 109.4 per cent of Amicus members pay this levy.

These facts should have brought the House down. But he could only plough on like a past-it schoolmaster on the last day of term.

It's not the original transgression but the way they deal with it that counts (as the PM says, in expiation). But the way they have dealt with it is to block and play dumb and claim every revelation is the last of the story. The claims, excuses and explanations are so unlikely, in aggregate, they need to be laid out with great, quiet seriousness. And no one on the front benches has yet done it.