Sunday, 30 March 2008

Mind your PMQs, Harriet

I imagine Harriet Harman is probably not having the best of Sundays today.

The confirmation that she'll stand in at the dispatch box for the PM on Wednesday will probably fill her with equal parts of pride, excitement and terror.

It's a bit like parachuting for the first time; you receive a lot of expert advice, you prepare to the nth degree but as you wait in the chamber for the first question, you'll give anything to pull out.

I used to be part of the prep team that briefed John for PMQs (unpaid I might add!) when he had to stand in for Tony. It would start the week before, preparing lines of attack against William Hague and second guessing what questions the chosen members would ask.

It's fair to say that while it never helped him at the ballot box, Hague is the best Commons debater of our generation; a formidable opponent whose rapier wit can bring any minister to his or her knees.

So we would spend a lot our time crafting 'bombs'; lines that would the highlight the Tories' incompetence or hypocrisy, stop Hague in his tracks and hopefully bring the House down.

Our greatest triumph was in March 2006. It was widely believed that John would get duffed up by William. But we had an arsenal of barbed traps ready for him to walk into. So when Hague brought up 'the punch,' JP could reply "I thought we had finished with Punch and Judy politics. I know I will be called Mr Punch. What do you think that leaves you as?"

As he left the chamber, MPs from all sides were patting him on the back and as we walked to the terrace for a quick drink, a voice called out from one of the bars. "Well done John. Great performance." Cameron had been watching and loved every minute of it.

So my advice to Harriet is firstly be yourself; John could never and would never try to emulate Tony. So find your own style. It's a macho environment and very tempting to go toe-to-toe like a couple of pugilists. Be different. Be yourself.

Secondly, craft your bombs. Humour is a great weapon and Hague (if it is he, it could be Theresa May) will have a long list of barbs ready to go against you. So get David Bradshaw in - the ex-Mirror hack wrote some belters for Tony and John.

Finally, don't believe the hype - zone out from the Westminster chatter. There'll be a lot of look-ahead pieces predicting you'll get hammered. You won't. So resist reading the papers for the next few days - you'll get all you need from the No10 PMQ team.

And remember my parachute analogy because as soon as you've done PMQs, you'll want to do it again, again and again!

So relax, make the most of the weekend and get Jack to do the Sunday roast!

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