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The silly season is upon us and the story that Peter Mandelson is hovering over a safe seat in the Commons with an eye on the premiership had a certain air of inevitability about it. William Rees-Mogg tipped some coal on the fire yesterday, suggesting Mandy’s aides briefed the Sunday Telegraph on the story, although it was really only a matter of time before someone somewhere dreamed it up.

For all his charms Mandelson would never win an election. He wouldn’t even tangibly limit the electoral damage David Cameron will inflict on Labour in 2010. He is unloved by voters and travels light on policy; his real skills lie in organising the party’s communications and strategy. He’s a Gerrard rather than a Rooney.

However in the aftermath of the next election I could see Mandy as an excellent caretaker leader. Harriet Harman may have been heading in the right direction in the gist of her comments over men and women this week, but the way she expressed them reminded us of just what a divisive figure she is.

Jack Straw and Alan Johnson would be, I imagine, less enthusiastic about grasping the poisoned chalice after a heavy defeat at the polls. Mandelson would have the strength of character and the political nous to stabilise the party while it began patching up its wounds. If I was the betting type I’d put money on Mandy running the party for a couple of years after 2010.

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These occasional encounters between Harriet Harman and William Hague at PMQs make you wish Gordon Brown would go on holiday more often. It’s like watching a brainless sitcom in the middle of endless news bulletins, or seeing the clowns wander in halfway through a Shakespearean tragedy.

Reliably, today’s joust was high on comedy factor and low on substance. William enjoyed himself; Harriet was cross. This unchanging formula is the basis of every episode. While – like Men Behaving Badly – it starts to get rather worn after a while, you can always be guaranteed a few juvenile laughs.

Things picked up where they left off last time, with Hague asking about the Working Capital Scheme. The scheme is essentially a bit of PR tat which was kicked out by the Labour spin machine last year and forgotten about, making it a useful thorn for the Tories to wiggle once in a while. Harman doggedly refused to answer the question, reeling out the textbook ‘do-nothing party’ riposte with such passion you get the impression she actually believes it’s a useful response.

As usual Hague landed a couple of funny blows, at one point painting a picture of Gordon Brown unpacking his Speedos on a South American beach and pointing out that “inheritance must preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford” when Harman brought up tax. You just know there are plenty of Labour backbenchers tittering along with these kinds of jibes.

The fact that these exchanges of puerility are such a welcome break from the usual Brown/Cameron drudgery does say something about the level of national debate, though. When Chuka Ummuna came to talk to our City class a month ago he was all for scrapping PMQs and replacing it with something more likely to fire useful discussion. At the time I dismissed this as nonsense. But in the long term there has to be a more constructive way than this.

Harriet Harman’s clash with William Hague at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday divided the blogosphere. The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow and Nick Watt broke from the pack and said she “hung Hague out to dry”. Jane Merrick, political editor of the Indie on Sunday, also though Harman had the edge.

More predictable were the damning responses from Simon Hoggart, Quentin Letts and Iain Dale, all of whom thought Brown’s deputy put on a disastrous performance.

If Harman seriously wants to edge out the likes of David Miliband and Alan Johnson when Brown falls – as this week’s press coverage would have us think – two things are certain. She’ll need to be able to deal with vicious briefings, however misogynistic. And she’ll need to hold up against tougher grillings than she got yesterday, on a daily basis.

Judging by her performance in the dispatch box, I’m not convinced she’s ready for either.

Let’s not understate the testing she got. Hague is a nifty parliamentarian, and his taunts over her rumoured leadership challenge in the clip above – “Why don’t you step in? When Chamberlain lost his party’s confidence, Churchill stepped forward” – were superbly delivered.

Harman also managed a few decent jabs of her own, most notably when Hague suggested senior government figures should show contrition for their role in the credit crunch:

As far as [Hague] is concerned can I remind him – if he wants to learn lessons – what he said when he was leader of the opposition? He said: “As prime minister I will make deregulation one of my top priorities. I will drive deregulation from the centre and I will promote ministers not on the basis of whether they regulate enough but on the basis of how much they deregulate.” So, yes, we have lessons to learn, but we’ll learn no lessons from him.

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But she seemed too easily rattled by the juvenile shouts echoing across the benches, and when Hague asked a well-researched question about the government’s failure to implement its loan guarantee scheme for businesses, Harman reeled off a textbook inanity that showed she didn’t know her brief.

The Tory benches roared with boyish glee.

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In a week dominated by the sad early death of Ivan Cameron, the eulogies have been plentiful. Gordon Brown for once managed to find the right words in his address to the Commons on Wednesday, when he said that “the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow no parents should have to endure”.

Among the shower of memorial articles produced since Wednesday morning, Matthew D’Ancona’s piece for the Spectator – written late on Tuesday night – has a special resonance. He pointed out, as others have, that Brown and Cameron are now bound by the tragic human bond of both having lost a child. He added:

In most cases, one finds that there is a formative event that moulds a political leader and acts as the fulcrum of his or her life. In Mr Cameron’s case, there is no doubt that the birth of Ivan, the challenges that followed, and the deep love he felt for his elder son had a tremendous impact upon his public as well as his private life.

Dominic Lawson’s piece in the Sunday Times today is also worth a read.

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Elsewhere, Lindsay Duncan’s portrayal of a magically slimmer, better looking and generally less insane Margaret Thatcher has sparked a raft of retrospectives.

The New Statesman dedicated this week’s issue to a ‘trial’ of Thatcher by recollection.

Among the memories the great and good have of her resignation – Paddy Ashdown recalls the entire departure lounge of Glasgow Airport erupting in euphoria – is this lovely vignette from former Labour MP Oona King years later:

On one occasion I was accompanying Gordon Brown after a meeting at Westminster with MPs. As we drove slowly through the House of Lords car park, we passed an old woman struggling to get out of a passenger seat. Gordon was nearest to her, but was rifling through papers for his next meeting. The old woman seemed to stand to attention at the sight of the car and waved almost bashfully towards us, evidently assuming we might stop and speak to her. When Gordon didn’t look up, her eyes slipped past his and, momentarily, locked on mine.

“Gordon,” I said, still surprised to have looked so closely into those eyes, “you’ve just blanked Margaret Thatcher.”

He seemed uncomfortable.

I bet he did. Also looking uncomfortable this week was Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, who took a seat opposite Andrew Marr after a long week of briefing and counter-briefing over whether or not she is manoeuvring to succeed Gordon Brown.

Harman gave dull scripted answers to questions on British complicity in the torture of terror suspects and the proposed part-privatisation of the Post Office. The interesting bit came when Marr pressed her outright on whether there was any truth to the rumour of her party leadership ambitions:

Absolutely not a shred, not an iota of truth in it. None whatsoever.

Brown’s allies have never seen Harman as a serious threat, despite the fact she snatched the deputy leadership election from stronger candidates. Compare the careful ostracisation of David Miliband last year with the outright thuggery of the whispering against Harman this week. Her on-the-record denial of ambition to Andrew Marr should mark a short, sharp end to the affair.