PMQs as-it-happened

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11:22 - Just over half an hour until the last prime minister's questions of the year begins, but neither journalists nor politicians get very sentimental about these things. If you do, feel free to seek immediate medical help. Downing Street tells us Gordon Brown won't be back in time for questions today after his press conference in Iraq this morning, and that Harriet Harman will be taking over from him. That usually means William Hague will stand for the Tories, which gives us the opportunity to once again mention it really should be Theresa May, Harman's opposite number, but that Hague is thrown onstage by virtue of the fact that he's funnier. Hard to tell what the opposition will choose to lead with. Iraq withdrawal? Royal Mail privatisation? The new Conservative objections to welfare reform? Unemployment? Your guess is as good as ours.

11:56 - The chamber is filling up as Douglas Alexander gamely bats away questions on international development. Gordon Brown is heading to Basra from Baghdad, it turns out, hence his skipping this session.

12:01 - Harriet Harman begins solemnly, shifting from making excuses for the prime minister to condolences about British troops in Iraq. Then Brian Donohoe, a Labour backbencher from Ayrshire, kicks off the session by wondering why the energy prices are still so high. Harman is all agreement. "We'll change the law," she says in school-marm voice.

12:04 - Shadow foreign secretary William Hague stands up to loud cries of 'hear hear' from the opposition benches. He demands a full-scale inquiry into the "origins and conduct" of the war. Harman says this won't happen until the troops return home. Hague points out they now are. "The lessons. can no longer be delayed," he urges.

12:06 - Without further ado, not batting an eyelid, he shifts to unemployment and calls for money to be given to businesses. That's a capitalist solution if there ever is one. Harman's response is tellingly Labour, concentrating on the needs of those who lose their jobs. "Anytime anyone loses their job it is a terrible blow for them," she mentions first. This is quite neat political positioning from the leader of the House here.

12:08 - On firmer ground Hague suggests the government might be responsible for recession. "Don't we now need a national loan guarantee scheme as we have advocated?" he asks. Harman insists the government is taking action. We are starting to warm up a little here, but the general tone of the exchanges is a little subdued compared to bruiser Brown and cutting Cameron. Harman says the Tories' proposal is "not worth the paper it's press-released on."

12:10 - At last, Hague unleashes some of his famous wit. He describes government plans as "a re-announcement of a re-announcement" before delivering the killing blow: "At Christmas time we're not just meant to get repeats and that is what we're getting today." The Tory backbenches roar with approval, but Harman remains snide in response. "They've said firstly no action, and now they're suggesting action which would make matters even worse," she says.

12:12 - The shadow foreign secretary flexes his domestic political muscles once again with an attack on the "say-anything, achieve-nothing government". He calls on Harman to admit the VAT cut to 15 per cent was a wrong answer to the government. Not much chance of that, of course, as Harman - school-lmarm again - slaps Hague on the wrist for "talking down the economy". And taking a leaf out of the clunking fist's book, she turns on the Tories.

12:13 - Hague is less than impressed by Harman's "lectures". Another good line: "If this is a prime minister saving the world, God help us when he moves on to the rest of the solar system." But Harman has a pretty decent response: "We'd rather have Superman leading this party than a party led by a Joker." The Tories are loving it and speaker Michael Martin has to tell them to calm down.

12:15 - But Harman's not finished yet. She points out that on, it says 'William Hague - leader of the Conservative party'. We're too busy checking she's right - and she is - to listen to what she's saying about unemployment as she wraps up.

12:16 - My editor, the less-than-honourable Ian Dunt, suggests Theresa May's top is the reason she isn't allowed to take on Harman in PMQs. He should stick to the politics. I think it's lovely.

12:19 - And now Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson Vince Cable takes the place of leader Nick Clegg. His question on the housing situation shows just how much he's improved as a parliamentary performer this year: capable, piercing, and more than a little witty as well. Harman gives him a polite reply: "We're very concerned about housing," she says. Cable is less than polite in response. He calls on her to address the "financial crisis" suffered by housing associations and accuses the government of downplaying its importance. But Harman says action shoring up the banks was enacted precisely to help the mortgage markets.

12:21 - After a question from Andrew Dismore on the Human Rights Act Tory backbencher Nigel Waterson asks about pensioners' benefits. The extra winter fuel payment and "Christmas bonus" are important, Harman says. "While we're in no way complacent about people's income in retirement, the single group of people who have benefited most in terms of their standard of living has been pensioners," she says.

12:24 Three questions about armed forces are next. Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader Elfyn Lwyd asks for speculation about the situation in Afghanistan; compensation is next; and then Mark Pritchard presses the government on defence equipment. Harman gives standard responses to them all.

12:26 - Government departments' worst enemy, the National Audit Office, is raised next. Will it be safeguarded? Harman thinks so. These are all fairly straightforward questions which aren't stretching her especially. If there wasn't a strict time limit on these sorts of things you get the sense she might stand up and say "is that it?"

12:29 - And now some interest: the opposition has been "pedalling" the question of "debt", Harman says, in response to a question by a Tory backbencher. In strident terms she argues for the need for debt to rise before turning to the Tories' finances. "How can his party can put forward a national loan guarantee scheme and not expect spending to rise? It simply does not add up."

12:31 - A planted question about Building Schools for the Future is next. Adrian Bailey says it is "vital for improving the educational prospects of young people in my constituency". Harman says he makes a very important point. It's not clear how democracy benefited from that change.

12:32 - Speaker Michael Martin announces the Commons committee investigating the Damian Green office search cannot be formed because it would prejudice the ongoing police inquiry. "There is therefore not yet a basis for nominating of that committee," he says in a quick statement.

12:33 - And on that administrative non-bombshell MPs totter off for a bite to eat, with Hilary Benn making a statement on flooding. This was a relatively quiet PMQs, with a brief flicker of excitement from Hague and Harman temporarily livening things up. Stand by for analysis.


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