Sketch: Hague takes a break in the Commons

William Hague doesn’t need his mojo to deal with Foreign Office questions.

By Alex Stevenson

The problem was addressed most directly by Sir Peter Tapsell, the father of the House, midway through this afternoon’s hour or so of grilling. (Although it wasn’t really a grilling, at all. Perhaps a slow-cooking, or even a marinade).

“I’ve never known a foreign secretary surr-rrounded by so many difficult problems,” Sir Peter said. This is a man who remembers Ernest Bevin, he reminded the chamber. This level of experience is not to be sniffed at. And he was right, of course: Hague is assailed by change in the Middle East, by an ongoing crisis in Libya, and now by the Japanese tsunami and its nuclear aftermath.

He has a busy workload and has not been error-free in recent weeks. So the rumours have been doing the rounds that Hague is becoming listless, demotivated. Images of him staring into nothing in the Foreign Office float before our idle eyes. Could they be true? Might he be the next Cabinet minister heading for the door?

Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister whose enthusiasm for being outspoken leaves more politicians distressed than enlightened, tackled the issue head-on. “We want him to discover his mojo,” he said, to groans from the government backbenches. Aides say this is complete rubbish, just Westminster tittle-tattle; clearly those sitting behind the foreign secretary agreed.

For those of you hoping to discover which side is correct based on the Commons performance this afternoon, only sad disappointment awaits.

The foreign secretary is an adept parliamentary performer, as his answers to the two questions above demonstrated. “I’ll make a point of never hoping to discover what motivates [MacShane] and never partake of any of that,” Hague said, with the air of someone drowning a flea. Never has a minor irritant been despatched with such ease.

The withering one-liner was deployed without Hague breaking into a sweat; so too was his graceful politeness in response to Sir Peter’s sympathetic statement. It was inspiring that Sir Peter remembered Bevin, Hague said, adding, with a tone which would not have been out of place while concluding a charming fairytale before bedtime, that “the conclusion he draws is an inspiration to me”.

Perhaps it was true that, at the beginning of the session, the answers were a little hesitant. But this is William Hague, for heavens sake. The man is a political heavyweight. Soon the stilted pre-prepared answers were abandoned and we were treated to that familiar lilting tone, up and down, down and up, the right hand gesturing expressively, that vast forehead rippling with expression-lines like the dunes of the Libyan desert.

He may be having a miserable time at present – who wouldn’t be feeling the pressure? – but it will take more than Foreign Office questions to rattle him. The experiment had failed. It was like assessing someone’s mojo by asking them to brush their teeth, or pick up some toilet rolls from the supermarket. Sterner tests are required to truly plumb the alleged depths our foreign secretary is now… plumbing?

Meanwhile Hague’s Lib Dem underling Jeremy Browne, who looks increasingly like he should be in a Victorian gentleman’s club smoking a cheroot, provided useful parentheses to the main event as he discussed his foreign travels.

The Lib Dems are forever being accused of luxuriating in the unfamiliar trappings of power, but it would be very wrong to suggest Browne takes any pleasure in the globe-trotting adventures of his day job. MPs didn’t see it that way, guffawing with pleasure as he outlined his recent delightful trip to the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean locations. “I am sorry to drag the minister back to the UK,” Labour’s David Lammy mused, expressing concern that Caribbean children were becoming more interested in American sports than cricket. Browne pointed out he had met West Indian cricketing legend Sir Garfield Sobers. Cue more guffawing. The Cheshire cat grin on the minister’s face wasn’t going anywhere.

Close to the end, Browne was called on to answer a query about Britain’s relations with, of all places, Brazil. “I haven’t yet had the opportunity to travel to Brazil,” he noted, before revealing that the foreign secretary was planning on travelling there soon. Hague, who must look at such a trip as a welcome respite from the intensity of recent weeks, allowed a quiet smile to play over his face.