The Sketch: Harriet tackles Hague – without a stab vest

Simon Carr
Thursday 03 April 2008 00:00

Politics and humour don't mix. You'd think it would be the opposite but the trouble with political jokes is they don't get you elected. Very high quality jokes, in fact, from Parliament's wittiest performer led his laughing party to defeat in 2001. The ruin of William Hague began when Blair developed the line, "We all like the honourable gentleman's jokes but ..."

Very recently, we were quite dewy with laughter during Hague's Lisbon performance. The evocation of scowling Gordon Brown receiving the cavalcade of EU President Blair was a great parliamentary occasion.

But the Government in reply used the laughter (which had risen from every bench in the House) to dismiss Hague's arguments.

Why does it work like that? Jokes give opponents somewhere outside the argument to sit and pass judgement. The humorist is trying to be funny. An ulterior motive is fatal in politics: it presents as insincerity.

Was that why Hague's wit never penetrated John Prescott during their stand-in contests? Prescott used to win, as often as not with nauseating sincerity: "I haven't got the honourable gentleman's learning but ..."

It happened again yesterday, against Harriet Harman. Hague lost to Hatbox! I get sharp wrist pains writing the words.

Harriet Harman is the worst leader of the House since the 14th century but she ... hang on, there's a case in point. Harriet Harman really is a very poor Leader of the House, and "the 14th century" lets her off the hook. No more jokes. Ever.

Hague began as brilliantly as ever by observing she was the first female Labour MP to answer at Prime Minister's Questions. (Knowing chuckles at the word "Labour"). Yes, she was following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher (outright laughter at the name of Labour's anti-Christ), "whom we on the Conservative benches, and the Prime Minister, so much admire."

Coup de grace! Tory cheering.

Ms Harman stood up, and goodness knows it takes nerve in that packed and unforgiving chamber. She rose to the occasion with a voice reminiscent of that girl in the Clarke's children's shoe advert all those years ago: "And Mummy says I'm going to be a proper little madam!" It is a voice that chimes with the spirit of the age, I say resignedly.

But why was Hague asking the questions and not the shadow Leader, Theresa May? Was this the modern Tory party where women were "seen and not heard?" And then offering "sisterly advice" she leaned forward and led with her admonishing finger, "she shouldn't let him get away with it!" Labour roars. Cries of "More!"

It's the roar that makes the difference. It doesn't come through on the TV. The roars were with her.

He needled her about the stab vest she had worn in her constituency. She knew he was going to. She had a prepared answer. It had been very well prepared. "If ever I need advice on what to wear, the very last person I would look to is the man in the baseball cap." More roars. I flinched, I don't know about you. You can hold up her words and examine them from any angle in any light but there is no defect in them.

There were more quips from Mr Hague but his timing was out, or he'd been thrown, and while he wasn't quite Archie Rice, he fell victim to the shaft: "On today's performance, he should be worrying about his income as an after-dinner speaker".

And there was surely enough to amuse us in Gordon Brown's current disconnection with reality. "No one" will be worse off by the abolition of the 10p tax band. And the way he reassures pensioners with the multi-syllabic rubbish that sounds like economics. And the cost of living rises, and that junior health minister saying the Government was out of touch. All this was touched on but Harriet was able to bat back her ladies-tennis answers and in the event it was all she needed to do. And perhaps most importantly, she resisted the temptation to quote Mrs Thatcher's last remembered parliamentary words, "I'm enjoying this!" That would have been a joke. And therefore a mistake.

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