Jim Pickard Hague and the Lisbon treaty

Watching William Hague debating the Lisbon treaty this evening was a reminder of why he is widely seen as the finest orator in the House of Commons.

Asked by a Labour backbencher about the failure of the Tories to hold a referendum on Maastricht – just as today’s government will not hold a public poll on Lisbon – he was not phased. "The difference between then and now is that," he began.

"You were in government?" interrupted Menzies Campbell, former Lib Dem leader.

"A difference on which the Liberal Democrats can only dream," replied Hague smartly.

David Miliband, though fluent, seemed less than commanding, not least when he ran through a less-than-convincing list of supporters of the new treaty. They included the NSPCC, Oxfam and a group of bishops.

Miliband also returned again and again to his set text: that the Lisbon treaty was different to the old EU constitution – contrary to what nearly everyone else seemed to think – in "structure and content and consequence".

Patrick Cormack, Tory MP, accused the foreign secretary of making an "appalling" speech and suggested the House be adjourned so he could "go and write a proper one". It was fortunate Miliband had his band of bishops, added Hague, as he could do with some supportive prayer.

Such were the highs of the debate, while Tory MP Andrew Robathan – deputy chief whip – struck a low when comparing Miliband with Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda chief. Asked to retract the comment, he did so only while mentioning that he had lost a relative in World War 2.

The frosty atmosphere which immediately followed was a reminder that while a red line remains in UK foreign affairs, despite joining Europe, there is also an invisible line in taste which MPs usually know when not to cross.