Secretary of State for Equality Harriet Harman made history yesterday when she became the first woman from the Labour party to answer Prime Minister’s Questions.
Ms Harman, who is responsible for gay rights issues, is also Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Leader of the Labour party.
Yesterday she was faced with former Tory leader William Hague, filling in for David Cameron.
The Prime Minister was at a NATO summit in Bucharest, and by tradition the other party leaders stay away from PMQs as well.
Mr Hague’s performance at the dispatch box confirmed his reputation as possibly the funniest Commons performer of his generation.
Earlier this week Ms Harman caused outrage in her own constituency after she was filmed on a walkabout with local police wearing a stab-proof vest.
She later insisted she was only wearing it as part of the ‘kit,’ in the same way a politician visiting a factory may wear a hard hat or a hair net.
“Before turning to domestic issues, I was going to be nice to the right honourable and learned Lady,” said Mr Hague.
“She has had a difficult week.
“She had to explain yesterday that she dresses in accordance with wherever she is going: she wears a helmet on a building site, she wears Indian clothes in the parts of her constituency with a large representation of Indian people, so when she goes to a Cabinet meeting, she presumably dresses as a clown.”
Ms Harman kept her composure, though many on her own benches were visibly amused by the barb, and responded in kind:
“I would just start by saying that if I were looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, the very last person I would look to is the man in the baseball cap.”
When leader of the Tories Mr Hague was mercilessly mocked for appearing in front of the press at an amusement park with senior party figures sporting matching caps.
“Turning to the important question of the economy,” she continued, “it has been our Government’s determination to ensure that we have a strong, stable and growing economy, so that people can be in work, be in their jobs and be better off. What is important is that people should have jobs and be able to afford their mortgages.
“Before the right honourable Gentleman cries any crocodile tears about low-income families, perhaps I can remind the House that when he was Leader of the Opposition, it was he who led the opposition to our national minimum wage and he who led the opposition to tax credits, which are helping six million low-income families.”
Mr Hague delighted MPs again with his response.
“I did not detect an answer to the question in all of that.
“The Leader of the House might still need advice on what to wear, and if she thinks her constituents might kill her, she should look behind her.”
He then mocked an entry she had written in her blog late last year that there was no sense of concern or insecurity over the economy among voters.
“When I wrote that blog as part of my ‘Harriet in the High Street’” she replied, to cheers from Tory MPs.
“When I wrote that blog, having talked to people in Princes Street in Edinburgh, that is what people were saying to me.
“I acknowledge, and we readily acknowledge, that since then the situation internationally has become more turbulent and people’s concerns are raised.
“We have to be ever vigilant and make sure that we keep the
economy strong through difficult international times, in a way that the previous Conservative Government did not.
“As far as the right honourable Gentleman’s jokes are concerned, normally people used to say about him, ‘Great jokes, poor judgement,’ but I have to say that on today’s performance, he should be worrying about his income as an after-dinner speaker.”
Mr Hague kept the jokes coming.
“I will not ever accuse the right honourable and learned Lady of being all jokes.”
The rest of Prime Minister’s Questions settled down after that, but as it ended, a significant moment had passed: for the first time since Margaret Thatcher was wrenched from office, a woman had stood at the dispatch box and answered PMQs.
Or, as Mr Hague put it:
“She must be proud, three decades on, to be following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, whom we on the Conservative Benches, and the Prime Minister, so much admire.”