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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.