PMQs sketch: Hague can’t hold back coalition tensions
Something odd happened in prime minister's questions this lunchtime. David Cameron did not appear. Nor did Nick Clegg. Instead, 15 years after his first PMQs, William Hague was speaking for the government.
This was the first time since the formation of the coalition that Hague, number three in the PMQs pecking order, had been required. Cameron and Clegg are both in the Americas, indulging in a bit of statesmanship, so it was up to Hague to man the fort. For Conservatives who fought the 2001 election the vision of Hague at the despatch box defending his ministers' policies remained a dream. Until now.
A shame, then, that the main exchanges between Hague and Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman were so insipid. Diplomatic niceties were exchanged over Aung San Suu Kyi's impending visit to parliament tomorrow. Then, when Harman moved on to the NHS, the questioning was neither fast nor furious. Whether or not decisions about treatments are based in financial or clinical reasoning is important, but does not make for scintillating political theatre.
Hague is an irrepressible comic, however, and couldn't help get in a jibe against Ed Balls simply for being in opposition. That only made the contrast with Harman's own attempt all the more acute. "The prime minister told us he could sum up his priorities in three letters: N-H-S. Isn't it more like L-O-L?"
Groans and half-hearted laughter competed in equal measure. "She obviously took a long time to think of that one," Hague observed laconically.
Tensions within the coalition continue to crackle. The collegiate atmosphere on the government backbenches, which had been very supportive of William Hague throughout his exchanges with Harriet Harman, was shattered by the very next MP to ask a question, the Tory eccentric Peter Bone.
Bone was only elected to parliament in 2010, but his outspoken views and frequent references to "Mrs Bone" in the chamber have made it feel like he has been here for donkey's years. He is an uncompromising politician and so is especially unsuited to life in the coalition. The "appalling behaviour of Liberal Democrat Cabinet ministers" was what had him so worked up on this occasion. A full week has now passed since Lib Dems refrained from backing culture secretary Jeremy Hunt over his conduct in the BSkyB takeover bid, but the bitterness of Tories has obviously not faded. Behind closed doors they are threatening to punish their junior partners by refusing to support reform of the House of Lords, a Lib Dem priority.
Bone wants to go still further. Even he had not gone so far as to mention the 'd' word before today. Bone wanted "my preferred deputy prime minister" to see what he could do to arrange a "divorce from the yellow peril". He wants the Tories to go it alone in a minority government – a suggestion which set the Commons abuzz with outrage and excitement. Speaker John Bercow told MPs they would want to hear what the foreign secretary had to say about all this. "I'm sure they will, Mr Speaker," Hague replied, grinning. He joked that talk of a divorce might be "deeply troubling to Mrs Bone". Then came his statement of commitment. "As someone who values enormously cooperation with the Liberal Democrats," he explained, a divorce would not be something he'd advocate in government.
All this shook up MPs, as you might expect. When Wells MP Tessa Munt, a Lib Dem, stood up to ask a question, even Bercow detected the tension. "I'm sure Conservative backbenchers want to hear from one of their coalition colleagues!" he remarked sarcastically. Bercow's popularity is not especially high among members of David Cameron's party. A dangerous low rustle from Tory MPs left the chamber unsettled.
More was to come. Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, got himself into a mess when he mistakenly referred to Hague as the deputy prime minister. The Commons loves slip-ups from Hughes and mocked him mercilessly. Hague couldn't resist making him squirm even more. "I won't mention to the deputy prime minister his slip," he said, mentioning it to everyone. "It's entirely between ourselves and these four walls." This is good for Tory morale, but is not likely to make the Liberal Democrat feel loved or cherished. Not that they have felt that way for many months, of course.