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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Margaret Thatcher has become the Labour Party’s favourite economic garlic sprig to ward off preying Tories.

For the second time in a week, Gordon Brown invoked the Conservative matriarch’s name to cast George Osborne and his allies on the wrong side of the sterling debate.

With the Opposition benches licking their chops in anticipation of another week’s good hunting at PMQs, Conservative MP Philip Dunne drew first blood by quoting a Brown mantra from 1992, that “a weak currency arises from a weak economy which arises from a weak government”.

 

This is the kind of banter Brown relishes. “I would advise the Conservatives not to talk down the pound,” he pronounced lustily, instantly winning a roar from his side of the House. He carried on:

And I would advise Conservative members to take the advice of Lady Thatcher, who said that trying to help the speculators and talk sterling down is the most un-British way.

Raising the spectre of Thatcher always seems to have the desired effect. The jeers from backbench Tories took on a momentarily confused note at the mention of the Iron Lady, as if they were suddenly flummoxed by the ideological conundrum her legacy represents for Cameron’s centrist reinvention of the party. It’s a shortcut to a pressure point within the Conservative ranks.

Gordon and Dave’s exchanges started on a contrite note following last week’s slanging match over Baby P, but it wasn’t long before the mud started flying. Brown accused the Tories of being the “do nothing party”. Cameron said Brown had forgotten the difference between fiscal and monetary policy. Incredulously shaking his head, Brown leaned forwards to the dispatch box.

 Let me tell him the difference between monetary and fiscal policy.

 Jacqui Smith, usually a sober presence at Brown’s right hand, let out a giggle. Cameron is being daring in taking the fight to Brown’s doorstep, but he risks being outgunned. The Tories have had to wheel their economic battleship around significantly in a matter of weeks, and they need to be more careful and more consistent.

You get the feeling the next few months are going to be crucial for the Conservatives. A recent poll by Politics Home shows public confidence in Osborne has plummeted, and Cameron’s ratings are beginning to drop off too.

An election at some point in the second half of 2009 is a safe bet. As Cameron told the Commons on Wednesday: “On this side of the House we’ve made our choice. It’s called spending restraint.”

The challenge Cameron faces between now and autumn 2009 is convincing the British electorate this is the right thing to do, not just another short-term political tactic.

 

Even the best PR is a fickle potion.

 

A few months ago a coven of elite spin-doctors assembled in Number 10, chucking every newt’s eye and bat’s tail in sight into the mix to revitalise the Prime Minister. Sure enough it was a new Gordon Brown who strode out into the midst of the financial storm, resplendent in his finest economic battle dress, proud and upright in the dispatch box and – for the first time in his premiership – striking something like fear into the Tory front benches.

 

It all started so well on Wednesday. An early Conservative question on unemployment played into the Prime Minister’s hands, and when Labour backbencher Phil Wilson handed him a peach by recounting a compliment from Paul Krugman, who recently won the Nobel prize for economics, Brown’s fiscal armour positively gleamed.

 

 

“Let me congratulate Mr Krugman on his Nobel prize,” the premier quipped. In the context of what was to follow, Brown’s grin was a disastrous misjudgement.

 

The ghost of Baby P, the 17-month-old boy brutally beaten to death by his family, has haunted this week’s news coverage. It is a tragic story that falls naturally to David Cameron’s strengths as an empathetic communicator and an advocator of social responsibility. He wasted no time in pinning Brown down.

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“Yet again, nobody is taking responsibility, and no-one has resigned,” Cameron told a roaring House. “Is it not unacceptable that the person who runs the children’s services department is responsible for looking into what her own department did?”

 

 

At that point, the alchemic magic that has gilded Brown’s return to confident form seemed to evaporate. As Cameron hammered home point after point, channelling his party’s righteous anger into sharp jabs, the Prime Minister looked like a marionette whose strings had suddenly been cut.

 

With his head down and eyes averted, Brown rumbled his way through a scripted response to Cameron’s demand for an independent inquiry into Haringey Council’s children’s services department.

 

“We already have the executive summary that was published yesterday and which identified weaknesses in the system,” the PM droned as jeers filled the chamber. “A decision will be made about what to do in relation to Haringey and what procedures need to be followed.”

 

It was back to the bad old days. Brown got the tone wrong, and when the time came to keep his shoulders square and make his delivery crisp, he did exactly the opposite. Back in Number 10 the cauldron must have been boiling over.

 

Cameron, on the other hand, looked like a man filled with real passion. As the temperature rose and speaker Michael Martin intervened ever more desperately, Brown accused his opposite number of playing party politics with Baby P. For a moment Cameron swaggered forward and glared at the Prime Minister like a squaddie who had just heard his mother colourfully insulted in a pub joke.

 

“I think that what the Prime Minister said just now was, frankly, cheap,” he said hotly. “I would ask the Prime Minister to withdraw the attack that that was about party politics.”

 

Withdraw he would not, despite the catcalls from the Conservative benches. When a dull question finally came from Labour MP Lynne Jones about the future of the Post Office card account, Brown drank it down like a tonic on a sweltering day.

 

“I am grateful for what my honourable friend says,” he gasped, and by God he was. On the basis of this performance, Brown must be hoping the credit crunch runs deep and long. On the other side of the House, Cameron has shown for the first time in weeks why he was elected leader.