Every so often you see a political performance that transcends time and place and will be ingrained in the memory forever: not necessarily for the right reasons. Thursday October 18, 2012, 10.30am, was one of those moments.
The venue, House of Commons. The star of the show; John Hayes, newly-installed energy minister.
No matter that Hayes was defending a policy shambles – over energy tariffs – that has been unravelling by the second.
This was a masterclass in rhetoric to rival Boris Johnson or even, in the words of the Speaker, the great orator Demosthenes himself.
Even one Labour observer admitted it was one of the most watchable performances he had seen in the Commons.
Hayes had been handed a dog’s breakfast but presented it to Parliament as if it was the most sumptious of platters.
Pressed as to why the prime minister had promised to shift everyone on to the lowest energy tariff – a policy that makes almost no logical sense* – he channelled Tony Blair on the death of Princess Diana.
“We will take the necessary steps to ensure the people get the best possible [energy] deal, for we are the people’s party and the people’s government.”
Asked why the energy department seemed not to know about the PM’s announcement, Hayes had a ready explanation:
“The Prime Minister comes to this House weekly to be scrutinised by this House. Does he give me notice of every answer, does he get notice of every question? The answer is no. But if he asks me whether the Department was considering these matters … the answer is a definitive yes.”
Shadow Caroline Flint invoked the spirit of “The Thick of It”, suggesting that the government’s policy was unravelling.
But Hayes turned his fire on Labour:
“You know, Mr Speaker, that it is not my habit to be excessively partisan in this House, and the British people will judge how to define “excessive” in the light of the fact that in 13 years the Labour party did so little to plan for our energy future.”
On he continued, full of vim and vigour:
“…..If I may say so, I have brought fresh energy to this brief, and I am determined that this Bill will be a landmark piece of legislation….”
At around this point the Speaker intervened:
“I trust that the Minister of State, who has just addressed the House with the eloquence of Demosthenes, will tailor the length of his responses accordingly.”
Hayes’ next response was brief, but in the same spirit as before:
“Alacrity and the defence of the common good lie at the heart of all I do.”
There was laughter as the energy minister claimed that Cameron’s comments yesterday had been “crystal clear”, but he ploughed on.
“The fundamental objective of the strategy I outlined is to bring clarity. Clarity is the prerequisite of certainty, certainty is the prerequisite of confidence and confidence is the prerequisite of investment”…..
It was at about this point that Labour’s Chris Leslie started to sound a bit frustrated – “we all know the minister is eloquent in the art of obfuscation” – asking him “yes or no” had he known about the PM’s surprise announcement.
And clear answer did there come? Obviously not.
* If everyone is put on the cheapest tariff that tariff is almost certain to rise, confounding the original intention.