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by RAY FLEMING

IT was bad luck for William Hague that he found himself putting the questions for the Conservatives at yesterday's B-list prime minister's question time while the A-list leaders were at the Buckingham Palace reception for the President of South Africa. Mr Hague is one of the ablest of parliamentary performers and can usually get the better of Harriet Harman but yesterday he was vulnerable because of his close involvement in the scandal over Lord Ashcroft's tax affairs. He took Ms Harman's bait and tried to deflect her very pointed observations but in doing so only showed how rattled he and the Conservative leadership are about this affair, notwithstanding Mr Cameron's claim yesterday morning that it had been “sorted” -- something he could not have said if he had read the morning newspapers.

William Hague's diversionary tactics were to link Harman to her husband, Jack Dromey, who is deputy general secretary of Unite, the union which is “wrecking British Airways” according to Mr Hague. The personal nature of that reference was bad enough but all trade unionists will take a note of Mr Hague's attitude to a union which is acting for its members and has held a legal ballot on strike action.

As for Mr Hague's suggestion that, while he was at the Buckingham Palace reception, the prime minister should ask the Queen for a dissolution of parliament and an election -- that was just silly.