By Harry Phibbs
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With the Prime Minister in Mexico, and Nick Clegg also away, the Foreign Secretary William Hague was answering the questions – and Harriet Harman was standing in for Ed Miliband. We have had the William and Harriet Show before when the roles were reversed under Labour, but this is the first time the two have clashed since the Coalition Government was formed.
Of course Mr Hague is a master of the art. Normally for a politician to shoot off as many statistics as he did would have been a mistake. We had figures on unemployment, doctor recruitment, exports to India, the number of miles of electrified train track. But rather than prompting groans, he got away with it. That is a measure of his ability as an orator.
At no point did Mr Hague seem under pressure. Even with the friendly fire from the Tory MP Peter Bone. Mr Bone demanded "a divorce from the yellow peril" and suggested proceeding as "a minority Conservative Government." There have been plenty of complaints from Tory MPs about the Lib Dems before, but I can't remember one of them openly demanding an end to the coalition.
So a booby trap. But one that was successfully navigated around. Mr Hague pointed out that he was in the team that negotiated the coalition, and made an obligatory quip about how Mrs Bone would be pleased that her husband was only talking about a political divorce. The moment passed without acrimony. There was a palpable lack of tension. That is something David Cameron could learn from. There is no need to exacerbate matters by making a personal attack on one of your own backbenchers.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was absent, prompting Mr Hague to speculate that he was conducting another opinion poll to find out what people think of him. "We could have told him the answer to that for nothing," he said.
Harriet Harman gave a clear condemnation of the doctor's strike. That denied an opportunity for Tory derision had she dodged the issue. But she told a weak joke about how, instead of Mr Cameron's priorities being summed up in the letters NHS, it was now LOL.
An advantage for William Hague is that he seems to be personally popular among MPs of all parties. Michael Foot once said that David Steel had "passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever." It was not meant kindly, but that seems to have happened to Mr Hague in a positive way. MPs enjoyed the chance to listen to a real pro.