PMQs sketch: Deputy by default

Will.i.am Hague's promotion that never was.

Is it worth wondering, if only for a moment, how the political career of the Foreign Secretary would have panned out if his parents had called him Will.i.am rather than just William.

Those with long memories might recall how back in the day Hague .W. had tried out for the trendy vote by being photographed wearing a baseball cap.

But this did nothing to prevent him being crushed by the Blair bandwagon and replaced as Tory Party leader by the man with the charisma by-pass, Ian Duncan Smith.

But 20 years is indeed a long time in politics and IDS was amongst those who could only look on as the man who almost never was stood in for the present leader of the Tory Party at PMQs.

Dave had spent the weekend sunning himself in Mexico at the G20 and, as we now know, unsuccessfully dodging the attentions of the formidably-named Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina.

Facing the thought of returning to London for his weekly humiliation at the hands of Ed Miliband at PMQs, the Prime Minister discovered he had important business to do with the President of Mexico.

This should have left the opportunity for humiliation to the Deputy PM Nick Clegg but he apparently found the prospect so grim and the lure of the Americas so great that he too fled the country using climate change as his excuse forb turning up in Rio.

Step forward then the Foreign Secretary who, despite his job title, could not find a suitable reason himself to be out of the country.

To be fair to William Hague, many in his party have spent much of the past years regretting having got shot of him so quickly.

It was part his wit, intelligence and sense of humour, frowned upon in traditional Tory ranks, which led to his downfall first time around. But it is precisely that which so delights them now as they reflect on the failures of the present incumbents.

Indeed, had Dave delivered the victory in 2010 without needing the Lib-Dems, William would have been Deputy PM and Nick would be topping up his tan in Reigate not Rio.

And so it was with some relief that the massed ranks shouted him to his feet at PMQs and it did not take long for one of them to welcome "my choice for Deputy PM" to the Despatch Box with the hope that William would seize the opportunity to cast their Lib-Dem partners into outer darkness.

Dave's absence meant a day off too for Ed M who is traditionally not called on to sully himself with lesser mortals.

As he pottered around his garden, in his place Labour delivered it's own formidably constructed deputy Harriet Harman who, well aware of the Foreign Secretary's debating skills, decided to step gingerly.

William bemoaned the absence of Labour's other Ed, he of the Balls variety, missing the running commentary during PMQs which has won him the coveted "most annoying man in British politics" title from Dave.

But missing too were the looks of fear and trepidation on the faces of Tory MPs which mark most PMQs as Dave tries, and fails, to keep his composure and his temper.

Indeed there was almost a holiday atmosphere on the Government Front Bench as Ministers, jobs secure for this day at least, swapped gossip and imagined life without him.

Ken Clarke positively beamed and onlookers could be forgiven for wondering if he had just woken from a long sleep to find William still in charge and Dave just a nightmare.

With Nick and Dave (not to mention George) all away despite the football, it was hard to imagine anything better.

But just to round the whole thing off nicely up stood Simon Hughes, one of the few senior Lib-Dems not to take the Government's shilling, to address a question to William as "the Deputy Prime Minister".

Mr Hughes is not a fully paid up member of the coalition and stout parties collapsed all round at the hopefully unintended error.

Ever gracious, the Foreign Secretary said he would keep Simon's slip to himself.

But you could probably hear the laughing all the way to Rio.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.