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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.