The Sketch: Stand-in Harman beaten by Hague's stand-up skills

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The Independent Online

Harriet Harman was standing in for the Prime Minister. He was at the G8, pledging to reduce carbon emissions to zero by the year 3000, along with one-to-one obesity counselling for every African child. Noble aspirations indeed. Well and good. Harriet, however, was left with the heavy lifting in Parliament.

She was brilliant.

Oh, Lord, she made us laugh. She was working to a script written for her by her clever aide Chris Bryant. But scripts go wrong in politics. She got her back bench to chant "Higher!" and "Lower!" and "Higher!" in response to certain questions about inflation, employment, the deficit. It was almost like 2001 with Tony Blair. Apart from the euphoria, the majority, the future. They chanted along, a little raggedly perhaps, but Hatty was doing everything she could to involve people in politics. Not that I heard you joining in, but my hearing's not what it was.

Then, dammit, she left out some things and added something else and then chose the wrong moment to say it, and poor Chris's heart must have sunk. Out of nowhere she told William Hague to "leave Parliament, go across the bridge and become a bishop at Lambeth Palace". There was one of those micro-pauses before angry, uncomprehending laughter from her back bench. There must have been something funny in there but I'm jiggered if I can reconstruct the original joke from these fractured fragments of bone.

Hague, brilliantly for someone as quick and lively as he, had left his jokes until last. And so, for the first time, he completely triumphed over his differently abled opponent. He teased her about her leadership ambitions (which, incidentally, suddenly seem to be an accepted fact) and remarked on the irony of a prime minister lecturing us on food consumption when he was "so far past his sell-by date". A wonderful silence descended on Labour.

Harriet thanked him for his "kind words" about her prime ministerial possibilities "but there aren't enough airports for men who'd want to leave the country" if she were prime minister". That bewildered friend and foe alike. It's given her an iconic status in British politics. She is the only person who could lift the Tories' share of the vote if Gordon gets ousted.

Yes, she may be the Tories' best hope for the future. One emerging plan is that Labour gets rid of Brown over the summer and a caretaker leader calls an early election – in order to lose it. This lumbers the Tories with the recession (three more years of it) and saves Labour from a decade in the wilderness. Cameron leads his party into becoming the natural party of economic misery, and 100 Labour seats are saved by an early election. It's in everyone's interests. Everyone except one, of course.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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