Herewith the latest installment of the romantic comedy starring Alan Duncan and Harriet Harman. Business questions took place yesterday.
Mr Duncan went first:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I thank her also for her thorough answer to my question last week about NHS trusts replying to Members’ letters. It is encouraging that we can sometimes work together constructively on issues that affect all hon. Members and, more importantly, our constituents.
May I, however, protest that convention has been discarded by the Government’s somewhat offensive decision to stick a topical debate in ahead of the second day of the Budget debate, which is traditionally opened by the shadow Chancellor? Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to reverse that unacceptable decision?
Yesterday, the Government promised that there would be an announcement on the inquiry into the Iraq war on 31 July, a full 10 days after the start of the summer recess. Quite simply, that is not acceptable. Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to give us a statement on the remit and intent of that inquiry before we rise for the summer?
Once again, I stand here to request an urgent debate on Equitable Life. On Monday, the parliamentary ombudsman launched an excoriating attack on the Government’s contemptuous treatment of her recommendations, and today in Treasury questions, the Economic Secretary compounded that by treating policyholders and this House with utter contempt. Because the Government’s response has been, as the ombudsman put it, a betrayal of justice, and they have ignored her recommendations, she has decided for the first time ever to invoke powers to produce a follow-up report. When will we have such a debate, and when will the people affected be compensated?
May we have a debate on the work ethic of Members of Parliament? Last week, we heard complaints from the Labour Chief Whip that at least 5 per cent. of his own MPs were completely idle. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Well, exactly. Today, the Government have lost three votes in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, because Labour MPs, including a Minister, did not even bother to turn up. In the interests of value for money, which the public expect, may I invite the Leader of the House—I hear calls for this from behind me—to list the 5 per cent. by name?
When it comes to performance, perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady will agree to be more forthcoming than she was at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. She refused to answer three questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on what the Government thought about the Governor of the Bank of England’s warning about a second fiscal stimulus. It has now become apparent that the Government’s entire economic argument has collapsed, to the extent that The Independent has today called the Prime Minister, “A haunted Prime Minister, marooned on his fantasy island”. In a further fantasy, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has told the New Statesman that he wants to be Chancellor and Labour leader.
There is one little ray of sunshine. At last, one Minister has begun to take our advice and started making an apology. We are told that the right hon. and learned Lady got into a bit of a mess about whether the actor who plays Tony Blair, or Tony Blair himself, is the better looking. We have heard the words of her apology, “Tony, you are still the fairest of them all.” One can but imagine his reply, “You know, I was a marvellous Prime Minister, but I got out in the nick of time.”"
Ms Harman replied:
"The shadow Leader of the House has complained that we have scheduled a topical debate for Thursday 23 April, when otherwise there would be continuation of the Budget debate. I am happy to accept his protests. That business was only provisional, so I will amend the business and make sure that there is a full day’s debate on the Budget opened by the Opposition, who choose the topic.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Iraq inquiry. There was a debate about that, and I have nothing further to add in business questions. Nor do I have anything further to add to what Treasury Ministers said about Equitable Life.
The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of the work ethic. I think that his point about value for money was very important. It is the case that 60 per cent. of Conservative Members have second jobs. That is why I think that the public will greatly welcome the fact that the Prime Minister—
The hon. Gentleman raised questions about what he described as manoeuvring. He mentioned a number of Cabinet Ministers, but I think that the manoeuvring on which he ought to be focusing is the manoeuvring of the shadow shadow Chancellor against the Leader of the Opposition. I think that it is a case of Hush Puppies on the Leader of the Opposition’s lawn.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned my unfortunate gaffe in relation to Michael Sheen. Let me say that I think that he is an excellent actor, who is clearly capable of covering a diverse range of roles. He brilliantly played a socialist, Brian Clough. He also played the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He is a great credit to his native country, Wales."
Great stuff. But the Government must act on Equitable Life.