Prime Minister's Questions, 20 June 2012
With Nick Clegg and David Cameron dispersed to different parts of the Americas to fend off the top two greatest threats to mankind - viz global warming and Angela Merkel respectively - it fell to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to face up to the third. He was opposite Harriet Harman at Prime Minister's questions. This might seem a trifle unfair (particularly on Mr Hague), but we are talking about mankind here. Add womankind to the blend, and Ms Harman's menace adjusts towards something more distinctly mid-table - somewhere between undercooked chicken and the Eurovision song contest - but for the male of the species, Ms Harman represents a uniquely clear and present danger that will only be released by her (hopefully long-off) death. Besides the competition was rattling its bracelets: Mrs Cherie Blair was in the news for telling an audience of feminine achievers at some posh paid-for lunch that women who stayed at home to mind the children and their looks were beneath contempt. Ms Harman, we might expect, would be at the top of her game.
And she began promisingly too, demanding that Mr Hague pay tribute to the "commitment and courage of one woman". Tory backbenchers reeled. Surely you didn't have to be that fearless to eat salad at Claridge's and lay into yummy mummies, but it wasn't Mrs Blair that the Labour deputy-leader was talking about. Nor was it the deputy leader herself, but Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, who is currently visiting Britain. Suu Kyi has been banged up under house arrest for the last 20 years, which might get her off even in Mrs Blair's eyes for not having made more of herself at the criminal bar. She is generally seen as a good egg, so that Mr Hague did not have any trouble agreeing with Ms Harman's sentiments. He was, he pointed out, the first European foreign minister to go to Burma to visit Aung San Suu Kyi and he must have been relieved to hear that Ms Harman thoroughly approved of this. For a moment it looked as if PMQs was going to be one of those dull and statesmanlike occasions that the dramatis personae feel that they have to put on every couple of months or so.
Luckily, Ms Harman, having secured tribute to one of her sex, changed tack and started to ask Mr Hague about the NHS. The exchange of political ordinance over the NHS is one of the enduring values of our country and quintessentially British. Despite successive generations of ministers trying to dick-around with it, its fundamental essence has survived intact for over 60 years. The opposition asks what the government has to say to patient X who has been denied an operation by their local hospital, or made to wait on a trolley, or, in the ideal manifestation of the genre, killed off entirely, and the government replies by saying that waiting times have never been shorter and there are more doctors than ever before.
Ms Harman had two patients that she wanted Mr Hague to address: one who had cataracts in both eyes and who had been told she could only get one fixed, and another with a dodgy hip, whose replacement operation had been postponed. One was longing for Mr Hague to reply that he would tell the hip patient she should count herself lucky she could see out of both her eyes, but this did not seem to occur to him. Instead, he sailed along upon a raft of statistics which showed, so he said, that the NHS was in tip-top shape. These statistics included figures that reveal that the NHS is poisoning fewer people than ever with MRSA. It has always struck me as part of the quinessential Britishness of the NHS that we feel so comfortable with boasting that our hospitals are actually quite clean.
A Labour backbencher, Fabian Hamilton, mentioned the Dalai Lama who is also currently in Britain. It seemed a little hard on the Tibetan spiritual leader that he only showed up two-thirds of the way down the bill, while Aung San Suu Kyi was top of the show, but there you are. There is a price to be paid presumably for dressing as one might expect to do so when progressing in convoy along Oxford Street with a tambourine. Noting that "two Asian Nobel peace prize winners" were in town, another Labour backbencher, Denis MacShane, invited Mr Hague to roll out the red carpet to a third, China's Liu Xiaobo, who is "currently rotting in the Chinese gulag". The foreign secretary, a trifle sniffily I thought, replied that he'd decide which individual human rights cases to raise with the Chinese, and when.
Clearly Mr Liu, unlike the others, isn't going to get here in time to witness the Olympic torch arrive on Southend pier, an event which, if the town's eager MP David Amess is to believed, would make rotting in China or 20 odd years with a Burmese policeman in your kitchen well worth the while. Mr Amess is convinced that Southend has within its boundaries all the gifts of grace and happiness than human existence can bestow. He used to think the same about Basildon until it became clear that among that town's limitless virtues was not to be found the likelihood that it would re-elect Mr Amess.
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