PMQs review: Hague offers jokes but no answers

Harman turns to the NHS as Hague steps in for Cameron.

With David Cameron at the G20 summit in Mexico and Nick Clegg at the UN summit in Rio, it was left to William Hague, who is First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, to hold the fort at today's PMQs, with Harriet Harman deputising for Ed Miliband (as is traditional on such occasions).

The session began slowly, with several banal questions from Harman on Burma (she asked Hague whether he would join her in expressing admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi). In response, Hague pointed out that he was the first European foreign minister to visit Burma earlier this year. However, the encounter took a partisan turn when Harman raised the NHS, traditionally a trump card for Labour at PMQs.

Hague managed to respond adequately enough to reports that cost-cutting NHS trusts are rationing care (he described it as "totally unacceptable" and pointed out that the Secretary of State can intervene) but failed to rebut Harman's claim that Cameron had broken his promise to increase the number of midwives. In response, in a series of references to Rebekah Brooks's infamous text to the PM, the deputy Labour leader quipped that before the election it was "Yes, we Cam". Now it's "No we can't." She added: "the Prime Minister said he could sum up his priority in three letters: NHS. Isn't it more like LOL?" The text was a political gift to Labour but Harman's jokes felt forced and fell rather flat.

It was Hague who had the line of the session when he noted Ed Balls's absence and quipped that he was off commissioning another poll into what people think of him, causing even Harman to laugh. The shadow chancellor, whose PMQs taunts routinely unsettle Cameron, will be pleased to know he was missed.

But on a more serious note, today's session was a reminder of why the NHS, even more than the economy, could prove an electoral headache for the Tories. Cameron worked hard to convince the electorate that the Tories could be trusted with the NHS and many now feel understandably betrayed. While Hague could deflect Harman's question about midwives with a reference to the doctors' strike (which Harman then condemned), that's not a trick Cameron will be able to play come 2015. "It's always the same, Labour builds up the NHS and Tories drag it down," said Harman at one point. The danger for the Tories is that most voters agree with her.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who replaced David Cameron at today's Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.