PMQs analysis: Showing Gordon how it’s done

Harriet Harman treated a rowdy House of Commons exactly as they deserved – like a bunch of naughty schoolchildren.

But this week the deputy Labour leader, standing in for Gordon Brown who is in Japan for the G8 summit, provided something else distinctly lacking from the weekly sessions of late. What was that in use at the dispatch box? Was it – could it be – a joke?

It was the combination of the two which worked so well for the deputy leader, whose sheer difference from the man she was standing in will have boosted her standing in the stakes to polish off Gordon for good.

Ms Harman had the perfect sparring partner in the form of PMQs veteran William Hague, who continues to stand in for David Cameron despite his palpable lack of deputy status. She made the most of that, telling the person who she should have been standing up against – Theresa May – to give up on the Tories and “apply to become a bishop”.

Her delivery is somewhat laconic, almost dry. Her high-pitched voice hardens as she ramps up the volume and the effect is that of a rather insistent schoolteacher. Perfect, of course, for dealing with rowdy MPs – and much more effective than the stuttering Scotch bluster coming out of Mr Brown’s mouth.

Mr Hague seemed to be enjoying himself. He got in the usual digs at Mr Brown, describing his moaning on food waste as being “supremely ironic” from a man he believes is “past his sell-by date”. But he was also happy in an off-the-cuff situation. Ms Harman pointed out the last person the PM would want to take dietary advice from was Mr Hague, “someone who drinks 18 pints a day”.

“None of that was ever wasted, I can assure you,” Mr Hague responded, to screams of laughter from MPs.

He worked hard to keep attention focused on the absent Mr Brown, the central figure missing from the stage. Twice it was kindly suggested from the opposition benches that Ms Harman engineer a leadership coup against Mr Brown while he was out of the country. Such “daft” proposals were slapped down by the leader of the Commons, who contrasted the bored opposition backbenchers with ministers recognising the needs and concerns of the family.

She responded to Mr Hague’s jibes on the offensive, pouring scorn on his offer of economic advice given his time in government. Rather than reeling off a list of accomplishments, however, she played the crowd. Like a female Bruce Forsyth, Ms Harman got the audience going on the Tories’ management of the economy in the 1990s. Was unemployment higher or lower? Higher! Were interest rates higher or lower? Higher! From the look on the faces of some Labour backbenchers, they haven’t had this much fun in years.

Ms Harman’s style, in short, was utterly refreshing. Even coming up against Mr Hague’s suspicions over Treasury spending on food – which he said trebled during Mr Brown’s time in No 11 – she remained composed, dismissing his probe with an airy “I’m sure it’s absolutely nothing of the sort”. She berated Liberal Democrat stand-in Vince Cable for undermining confidence in the economy. And, best of all, she used self-deprecating humour to great effect, saying to stirrer John Baron: “I thank him for his kind comments about myself but I’m afraid [a leadership bid] wouldn’t be possible because there aren’t enough airports. for all the men who would want to flee the country”.

Perhaps all Mr Hague needed to do this week was mention the prospect of a Harman takeover and sow the seed of doubt in Labour backbenchers’ minds. Given the strength of her performance in PMQs, she was making the case for a change by herself.