Politics: Ruddock clashes with Harman (even when she's blushing)

Adrian Deevoy
Monday 08 June 1998 23:02

ONE simple telephone call would have averted the horrendous disaster that was the almighty clash between Harriet Harman's deafeningly cerise jacket and the vibrant verdant number Joan Ruddock had selected for Oral Questions to the Secretary of State for Social Security.

But that call was clearly never placed. The upshot was the centre of the Labour front bench resembling an especially unappetising smoked salmon and mushy pea starter.

Along with the ill-advised puce blousson, Harman wore the haunted expression of a woman whose position is not absolutely stable. One wonders for how much longer she will be taking questions on occupational pensions and housing benefit fraud

But even with this added spice, Harman's Half Hour wasn't the gripping affair it could have been. It was only during a sustained Tory attack that her cheeks pinkened to a delicate hue that stopped agonisingly short of her outer attire.

Was her New Deal for Lone Parents in danger of becoming a "very expensive, failed sound bite"? she was asked.

Surely looking after an under-five is a full-time job in itself for a Lone Parent. But Harman made plain her belief that more LPs than ever were keen to exchange nappy-emptying duties for more glamorous forms of employment. This, in turn, raised the issue - courtesy of Jackie Ballard (Lib Dem, Taunton) - of government-funded child carers. "Mm," harrumphed a Tory back-bencher, "Nanny Tax."

The eminently readable face of Diane Abbott (Lab, Hackney North and Stoke Newington) served as an excellent barometer for entertainment levels in the House.

Stifling a yawn, she would turn her baleful gaze up to the public gallery as another less-than-riveting exchange limped across the divide. But if something grabbed her wandering attention she would snap out of this glazed reverie and begin bouncing up and down like a schoolchild in pressing need of a wee. But not all the Labour squad were as visibly supportive. When Harman became particularly earnest, left hand beating out a worthy rhythm, one of her colleagues - no names, no pack drill, hairdo inspired by a Northern night-club owner - took the opportunity to steeple his pudgy hands studiously beneath his many chins and grab what looked like at least 35 winks. A veil of muted dread and fear descended as pensions were discussed.

The shrivelling fact that more than 50 per cent of Europeans will be over 50 by 2021 hung heavy in the air like a dulling wine. John Denham, the pensions minister, was confronted with the accusation that 10,000 winter fuel payments for hard-up pensioners were sent out in error. The wiry and inexplicably irritating John Bercow (Con, Buckingham) described his department as "incompetent". Denman weakly admitted that the incident was "regrettable". Tell that to your grandmother as you de-frost her this Christmas.

Interesting to note that during this pensions palaver a more senior Labour member took the opportunity to ease himself up and shuffle out of the room. It was only as he vacated his seat that he was exposed as the only right honourable member to have been awarded a large, square cushion. But why the premature departure? Presumably, he had piles of stuff to get through.

Having just managed to scrape through on points, Harriet Harman quit question time with the smallest of sighs.

Outside the House earlier, the freshly-promoted shadow health secretary Anne Widdecombe was having her photograph taken. Striking what she undoubtedly fancied to be an alluring pose, Miss Widdecombe - you could not help but notice - was wearing a sawn-off safari jacket in another distressing shade of green. Something must be done.

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