When Harriet Harman crossed swords with the dangerously witty William Hague in the House of Commons, the encounter raised an interesting question of the power of humour in political exchanges
The trouble with political jokes is they don’t get you elected.
I wish I’d thought of that. Recently, my attempts to influence colleagues in the value of ideas of a rather well-known economist were met with the scornful riposte, ‘but he’s only a journalist’.
If only I had argued from the way Simon Carr analysed the Harman/Hague tussle.
His sketch in The Independent goes some way to addressing a few questions that have been niggling me for a while.
How come David Cameron’s victories over Gordon Brown are not (even more) reflected in the opinion polls? Why did William Hague’s mastery in debate over Tony Blair not lead to electoral success?
The background to the story was the Press reaction to Harmon’s photo-opportunity appearance in her constituency in a stab-vest, earlier in the week. Her willingness to make some point for the police resulted in opportunity for political damage.
The story was bound to be picked-up when she then stepped in for the PM on Wednesday [April 2nd 2008]. Gordon Brown was away doing stuff with high-powered NATO types. Perhaps coincidentally, William Hague stepped in for David Cameron.
Carr’s account introduces a sub-plot developed around whether the Conservative lead speaker should have been Teresa May, as shadow Deputy PM. It also tells of the riposte touching on Hague’s own earlier moment of media misjudgment, when he appeared in public as an ordinary guy in a baseball cap.
This is how Carr reported the exchange between the two:
Hague began as brilliantly as ever by observing she was the first female Labour MP to answer at Prime Minister’s Questions. (Knowing chuckles at the word “Labour”). Yes, she was following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher (outright laughter at the name of Labour’s anti-Christ), “whom we on the Conservative benches, and the Prime Minister, so much admire.”
Coup de grace! Tory cheering.
Ms Harman stood up, and goodness knows it takes nerve in that packed and unforgiving chamber. But why was Hague asking the questions and not the shadow Leader, Theresa May? Was this the modern Tory party where women were “seen and not heard?”she shouldn’t let him get away with it!” Labour roars. Cries of “More!”
He needled her about the stab vest she had worn in her constituency… She had a prepared answer. “If ever I need advice on what to wear, the very last person I would look to is the man in the baseball cap.” … There were more quips from Mr Hague but his timing was out [and] he fell victim to the shaft: “On today’s performance, he should be worrying about his income as an after-dinner speaker”.
Harriet was able to bat back her ladies-tennis answers and in the event it was all she needed to do. And perhaps most importantly, she resisted the temptation to quote Mrs Thatcher’s last remembered parliamentary words, “I’m enjoying this!” That would have been a joke. And therefore a mistake.
Carr’s main point was
Very high quality jokes, in fact, from Parliament’s wittiest performer led his laughing party to defeat in 2001. The ruin of William Hague began when Blair developed the line, “We all like the honourable gentleman’s jokes but …”
The Government in reply used the laughter (which had risen from every bench in the House) to dismiss Hague’s arguments. Why does it work like that? Jokes give opponents somewhere outside the argument to sit and pass judgement. The humorist is trying to be funny. An ulterior motive is fatal in politics: it presents as insincerity.
If that’s ‘mere’ journalism, I wish I had more colleagues able to provide such journalistic insights for further scholarly examination.
For a somewhat different treatment see the news that Harriet always wears a stab-vest to cabinet meetings