The Sketch: They tried to cheer but it was a rallying moan

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It was Wales questions so everyone turned up to see the Secretary of State for Wales. Hain the Pain. I say everyone, I mean everyone in the gallery; there were no ministers on the front bench until Alan Johnson at 11.52. There were, for the occasion, very few members in the House. The chief whip hadn't done his job. Or perhaps he had.

The PPSs sat in the second bench but left a space behind Hain. One patted the place as if to beckon someone to sit there. Nobody did. When Hain stood up and made some remark glancing at his problems there was no reaction. They sat like waxworks.

If you enjoyed Marathon Man you'd have enjoyed Wales questions. I'm losing my taste for the sight of suffering. He cut a lonely figure, generally expressionless. Disliked? Too strong a word. Misliked? Even that implies intimacy. He's just not liked. Maintained but not supported.

A Tory cunningly brought up the Prime Minister's word "incompetent" and suggested resignation. There was no Labour barracking in favour of their man. And when Hain said, "Thanks for that supportive question" there was one of those echoing silences.

Cheryl Gillan alluded to a previous occasion when he'd been accused of a conflict of interest and asked him whether he regretted it.

"I have absolutely no regrets!" He roused himself for the moment and the backbenches did their waxworks thing again. Then there was an attack on the Tories which, by the laws of parliamentary etiquette, has to produce backbench noise. They tried to cheer but they failed halfway and it became a loud, rallying moan.

The Tory front bench was so full, David Davis couldn't get a seat in the blast area. At 11.55, another two Labour ministers came in, Kelly and Balls. They kept well away from the source of the contagion. No Leader of the House in her place. No chief whip in his.

Harman was seen loitering behind the bar. She didn't take advantage of a change of question to come and sit down. She dithered. It was 11.57.

Suddenly, Hoon appeared from nowhere and sat next to the poor, suffering creature. Then Harman had nowhere to sit. She bent over Hoon and said (I like to think): "Get out of my frigging seat!" But he wouldn't move and she had to squat in the aisle. But at least Hain had someone to sit next to at last.

Who will get his job? Frank Field? That would be delightful. But how ministerial is Frank these days? Gordon Brown would want to show:a) he can still lure all the talents into his big tent; b) that he is bubbling with fresh ideas;c) he can head off Cameron's Blairite proposals on welfare reform... no, not Charles Clarke. Milburn. What are the odds, though, on Alan Milburn?

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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