As the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery sat sharpening their stilettoes yesterday for the first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2014, they must have been acutely aware of the end of an era. Simon Hoggart, prince of Parliamentary sketch writers, passed away last Sunday at the ridiculously young age of 67.
I’m a huge admirer of Hoggart’s style. I’ve frequently attempted to ape it, typically in my dreams, but even my very best shots have all the flavour of a thrice-used tea-bag. These days, with access to live pictures, news blogs and the Twittersphere, we’ve no excuse for missing a syllable of any debate, but we’ll never appreciate its underlying truths as we did when laughing out loud at his witty, expertly-crafted vignettes.
Hoggart’s House of Commons was stuffed with fascinating characters who lodged themselves in your memory like Tenniel’s Alice In Wonderland illustrations. There was the grandiloquent Sir Peter Tapsell, Father of the House, whose every utterance was handed down amidst awed silence; Michael Fabricant, whose hair defied all attempts to take it seriously; Nicholas Soames, lampooned in a single paragraph as a bouncy castle and a barrage balloon; and, of course, John Major, of whom Hoggart wrote that seeing him govern was “like watching Edward Scissorhands try to make balloon animals”.
His humour was rarely, if ever, vicious, probably the first test most of us wannabes fail. Its targets were usually happy to be part of the joke, in the classic tradition of Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas victims. Not always, though: John Prescott, never with a chip on his shoulder when a plank is available, may have felt ill-equipped to respond to his verbal shafts, and irritated that their source was a bloke educated in his beloved Hull who’d gone over to the posh side. And there did seem to be lasting antipathy with Tony Benn, whom Hoggart appeared to regard as a national treasure, but of the sort best kept hidden.
So what would Hoggart have made of yesterday’s PMQs? As a fantasy escapade it didn’t quite measure up to Alice In Wonderland. Instead, it had all the rip-roaring excitement of Alice Goes To The Shops For Some Milk.
Of course, no-one was expecting fisticuffs. News had broken of the death of Paul Goggins, a colleague clearly highly regarded on all sides, and MPs’ genuine shock and sadness had put them on their best behaviour. Even so, exchanges were remarkably civilised. If this was the Punch and Judy Show, it was an ‘elf-n-safety approved version played out by sedated nuns, featuring feather dusters for weapons, vegetarian sausages and a crocodile who’d forgotten to put in his false teeth. Had the Speaker gone into the dressing room beforehand to lecture the team captains on playing nice for the cameras?
Ed Miliband’s opening question, on power distributors’ slow response to storm-related blackouts, certainly prompted high-fives from those of us who had “Lessons To Learn” on their “Cameron Buzz-Phrase Bingo” card. But surely Ed would now fillet Dave by bringing up Environment Agency spending cuts? On the Tory front bench, Owen Paterson nervously shuffled his Post-It notes. But no! Instead we got some old mince about asking DEFRA to report on future flood defence capability, which the PM effortlessly rendered harmless by declaring it a jolly good idea.
It took Diane Abbott, summoning her super-power of annoying the hell out of people, to inject some verve into proceedings. What, she enquired, about landlords evicting, or refusing as tenants, housing benefit claimants who were in work? What did the Prime Minister have to say to these hard-working families?
“We’re cutting your taxes!” roared Dave triumphantly. (Well, I’m sure extra disposable income is always welcome if you want to provide your own blankets at the night shelter.) Then, suddenly, the spirit of the Daily Mail, which hovers eternally over the Tory benches, swooped down and took possession of him. “Housing benefit bill far too high! Payments of sixty thousand! Seventy thousand! Housing benefit used to buy yachts! Alabaster bathroom furnishings!” Concerned colleagues dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a Wet Wipe.
But, just as quickly as it had arisen, the passion subsided. Ed returned to his feet and with a confident flourish tore off his velvet glove, only to reveal a tissue-paper fist. He brought up the spread of fixed-odds betting terminals, which Dave pointed out had begun when Labour relaxed gambling laws in 2001. “Our reforms in 2005 limited them to four per betting shop,” bleated Ed, trying desperately to dig in his heels. But he was too close to the edge. “They didn’t go far enough…..” Off he hurtled into the abyss.
The session continued to pootle along in predictable vein. Each time a Labour MP complained about some dreadful state of affairs, the PM referred to his spreadsheet of “Crap that happened between 1997 and 2010”, and told us it was all Labour’s fault. And each time a Tory MP mentioned a local business that hadn’t yet been driven to its knees, the PM endorsed this as evidence that the Government should stick to its plan of making everyone’s life miserable.
We did make some discoveries. Despite spending cuts forcing the local police to use public transport, crime in Bassetlaw is down by 27%, presumably because the yobs can’t nick panda cars any more. Dave seems to believe in climate change, possibly heralding a permanent drop in the temperature of his relationship with the Environment Secretary. And it seems that Samantha Cameron’s late step-grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. Wonder what she would have made of Dave’s current pet phrase “difficult decisions”?
As we checked our watches and looked around for the lady with the choc ices, Scottish Independence came trundling into view, with the SNP’s Angus Robertson inviting Dave to debate with Alex Salmond. A simple “No” would have sufficed, but I’m sure we’re all grateful to Dave for advising us, “It’s all over, the Yes campaign is toast, how can you haggis-munching separatists even get up in the morning, looooo-zers.” I suspect SamCam Gran and her Bletchley Park colleagues would have pretty rapidly decoded that. “I’m feart.”
And so Dave departed, his expensively coiffed hair barely ruffled. We all know what happens to New Year resolutions, so no doubt next week the two party leaders will return to hitting each other with giant frying pans in a febrile atmosphere. The non-combative approach certainly doesn’t work to Labour’s advantage, since it seems to involve Ed using up all his questions on topics such as flower-arranging, but still gives Dave free rein to lambast Labour for all the ills of the world. It might be smart to stop scoring own-goals, too.
As for Simon Hoggart, even during yesterday’s phony war I’m sure he’d have identified several quirky moments to fashion into an entertaining narrative. If you have imagination of that calibre, you can count on it when it matters. Then he’d have padded off to a familiar restaurant for an agreeable lunch. Not quite the same as me slouching off to the kitchen for a Cup-a-Soup and Heinz Ravioli on toast. Still, it gives me something to aspire to, doesn’t it?