PMQs sketch: End-of-term truce disarms Harman

Perhaps seized by the festive spirit, William Hague seemed determined to avoid confrontation in the final PMQs of 2009.

By Alex Stevenson

Parliament just didn’t seem in the mood for conflict on its last day of term. Snow gently drifted down on a chilled Palace of Westminster. MPs, huddling together in the chamber for bodily warmth, happily anticipated expense-enraged constituents roasting on an open fire.

The last thing on their minds was some scintillating toing-and-froing from Hague and the shadow leader of the House, Harriet Harman, who was filling in for the absent Gordon Brown.

Just as well, really, because they didn’t get it. Instead a subdued, quietly dignified Hague seemed utterly uninterested in winding Harman up. He rattled through his six questions, barely raising any concerns at all.

His chief qualm was that the House rising today, December 16th, was the earliest it had packed up for the holidays for 31 years. Harman viewed this as a “slightly spurious” concern; it returns earlier than usual, on January 5th, she pointed out.

Some tame exchanges on the climate change summit in Copenhagen, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s liberty and the Iranian nuclear threat whistled past.

“I can tell the House we agree,” Harriet said after one question.

“Yes, I think we can agree,” she said after another.

And finally: “I certainly would agree with him.”

Where were the devastating asides of yesterday, the cut-and-thrust wit on which fortunes are made?

An abortive attempt to introduce even the merest snippet of acrimony at the end produced only a half-hearted response. Hague was clearly trying to paint himself as the statesman, above such petty politicking, but Harman desperately wanted a fight.

Which was why she jumped at the chance when relief came in the unlikely shape of the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Vince Cable.

His question about tax evasion triggered instant uproar from the Labour backbenches, who have enjoyed watching Tory wriggling over the tax status of their major donor and deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft.

Harman’s new slogan – “no representation without taxation!” – was met with frenzied excitement by those sitting behind her.

“Can I take that point but perhaps make it in a less partisan way?” the apparently apolitical Cable asked, to more roars of laughter.

He said he wanted to “commend” the absent David Cameron for backing down on the issue, despite the fact he thought it felt like “turkeys voting for Christmas”.

“I would like to complain about the opposition,” Harman responded, with all the righteousness of someone about to pen a strongly-worded letter to the Times. After wondering whether Hague might like to divulge some interesting titbits about this, which merely resulted in the shadow foreign secretary rolling about in the aisles with laughter, John Bercow interrupted.

“We needn’t pursue that point any further,” he said. That’s quite enough politicking for 2009.

Hague doesn’t really want to spend the final days of the noughties holding the government to account. There’ll be plenty of time for that, along with a little electioneering, in the new year.