Sketch: Cameron wipes the floor with Harman

Harman gets worse each week. Cameron gets better. But Bercow has the last laugh.

By Ian Dunt

There’s so much going wrong with Harriet Harman right now it’s tough to know where to start.

Her personal performance is very poor, with a robotic, staccato delivery alienating her audience before the actual content of her message is delivered. For a while today it looked like she was starting to enjoy herself. It really showed. She teased Cameron about his mother, and Clarke about his sour mood. Cameron reminded her that his mother spent most of her time handing out short sentences to CND protestors, of which Harman once was one. He made full use of the fact that Ken Clarke – widely loved and full of character – could stand up to Harman any day, and promptly reminded her of his jovial characteristics. Suddenly she wasn’t having fun anymore, and her performance resorted to type.

But Harman’s political approach to the unique situation she finds herself in is far more problematic than the lacklustre performances she has delivered during PMQs.

Labour’s stale political machine is still trying to recalibrate itself to a coalition government. For a moment this morning it appeared as if she may be onto a winner. By tying together domestic violence with Clarke’s review of short sentences, it was possible to bulk up the attack with a left-right combo. It didn’t last long. Before long she settled back into a clear right-wing rant about police numbers, rising crime and DNA retention.

It was triangulation – pure Blairism. The former PM always tried to push his opponents into an unacceptable political position by land-grabbing their territory. Go all law-and-order on the Tories, for instance, and you either force them into wet liberalism or so far to the right they become unacceptable. At the time plenty of Westminster people found it terribly clever, which is a symbol of how little actual belief there is in this place. The fact that Harman is still hammering away at it now is just laughable.

Clarke’s sentencing review speech, in which he said some short sentences need to go, is supported by penal reform groups across the country. Separating those convicted of trivial offences from their family, forcing them to socialise with serious criminals, stuffing our prisons to the rafters, costing the taxpayer millions, letting out other prisoners because we’re imprisoning people for stealing a Mars bar: these are not sensible policies. And they are certainly not progressive. Labour’s initial response consisted of a shameless article in the Daily Mail by Jack Straw in which he argued – with a straight face – that prison does work, despite all empirical data to the contrary. And then today Harman went on the attack, thanking a Tory prime minister for listening to his magistrate mother rather than the policies of fellow progressives Lib Dems. Plainly, Labour’s rage at what they see at Lib Dem treachery is clouding its political judgement. The fact Cameron reminded her his mum would have happily locked Harman up showed how badly the Labour leader was drifting in her allegiances.

The simple fact that Harman is not enjoying herself is plain to behold. This is clearly a sacrifice for her. Those commentators (I only mention this because I was not one of them) who constantly prattled on about her leadership ambition must be feeling rather red-faced. She clearly would like nothing less.

The old, crumbling tactics of New Labour are falling apart. Harman cannot win going to the right of a Tory government, but the presence of the Lib Dems means she has to go further to the left than she would like. The result is a scattergun approach involving triangulation, right-wing rhetoric and occasional forays into left-wing principles. My guess is that the evident failure of these strategies will encourage Labour MPs to vote for Ed Miliband, as the most left-leaning of the mainstream leadership candidates.

But even with his easy pickings today, the game didn’t go to Cameron. It went to John Bercow, whose wife looked warmly at him from the balcony above. Having delivered (yet another) lecture on how PMQs is too rude and loud, he decided to capitalise on the attention and berate the prime minister for trying to read from Alistair Campbell’s memoir. Cameron was clearly excited about the joke he had coming, but it wasn’t to be.

“No, we won’t bother with that” the Speaker said sharply. Cameron, always a fairly pink fellow, went bright red and laughed nervously. “Mr Speaker, I was only trying to boost sales,” he stuttered. It was the smallest we’ve seen the prime minister since he got into office. The smoothness, the perfect tone, the confident detachment – they all dissipated. Bercow had accomplished in a line what Harman has failed to do in two months.