Business secretary Vince Cable has had a tough year. It can’t have been easy defending the trebling of tuition fees when he once pledged to abolish them altogether. Cable has always seemed somewhat nervous at the despatch box but following the tuition fees vote – let alone his comments about Rupert Murdoch − he has had to deal with constant barracking from Labour. He stutters his way through statements and is grateful to sit down at the end. It is often hard to remember that he was once the economic guru of the Commons, fully loaded with sharp witticisms to take the government down a peg or two. Recently he has been in trouble for getting into the habit of sending his universities minister David Willetts to answer urgent questions on higher education.
Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper is constantly overshadowed by his boss, Nick Clegg, on matters of constitutional reform. But Harper impressed MPs across the House with his calm handling of the highly controversial Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He answered MPs’ concerns over the legislation with characteristic charm and confidence, and stood in stark contrast to his Labour counterpart Chris Bryant who sought to hog the limelight throughout the Bill’s committee stages. Harper is a safe pair of hands and his talents will not have gone unnoticed by the whips.
Education secretary Michael Gove clearly feels passionately about his school reform programme and can wax lyrical about the benefits of free schools and academies. But he had to say sorry to MPs – just two months after the coalition was formed − after he released an error-strewn list of schools affected by building cuts. Gove’s downfall came when he couldn’t resist playing to an audience and attempted to answer backbenchers’ queries about their local schools immediately, rather than waiting until the final list had been double checked. The result was chaos − and Gove’s shadow Andy Burnham hasn’t let him forget it.
Best attack dog
When Ed Balls was finally appointed shadow chancellor, Tories outwardly jeered but were secretly rather dazzled by his parliamentary prowess. Balls is relishing his new role, often seizing the chance to remind voters of George Osborne’s wealthy background. “Perhaps the chancellor should have spent less time on the ski slopes of Switzerland and more time in the conference halls of Davos,” Balls said in their first showdown. As well as being effective at the despatch box, he is an expert at winding up the cabinet when he is sitting down. Cameron finds it hard to ignore Ball’s relentless heckles and gestures – to the extent that he recently interrupted PMQs to label him the “most annoying person in modern politics”. A badge of honour for the shadow chancellor.
Lib Dem John Hemming has made a name for himself as the man who stands up against the gagging orders of the super-rich − whenever he arises to make a point of order, the House listens. It was unsurprising he was the man who named Ryan Giggs in the chamber. After all, it was he that sent reporters scurrying when he calmly told MPs in March: “In a secret hearing, Fred Goodwin has obtained a super-injunction preventing him from being identified as a banker.” He is a staunch advocate of freedom for the press and has been particularly riled by moves to prevent constituents from talking to their local MP.
When Tory Nadhim Zahawi stands up, you know ministers will be patting themselves on the back within seconds. He loves to congratulate the government and provokes guffaws from the Labour benches with his flattering comments. When health secretary Andrew Lansley announced a pause in the highly controversial Health and Social Care Bill, Zahawi reassured him that GPs were “absolutely passionate” about the reforms and described the plans as a “brilliant piece of legislation”. His best moment came when he inadvertently turned on his musical tie during a speech on education. How Labour laughed when deputy speaker Dawn Primarolo urged him to be “more selective” in his choice of neckwear.
Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg is a speaker who commands respect, with many backbenchers scurrying to the chamber to hear his words of wisdom. He is able to tell fascinating tales of history and recite poetry without the need of notes. And he is not phased by MPs’ interventions − indeed he relishes them, batting them back with the deftness of a stand-up comedian disposing of hecklers.
Green MP Caroline Lucas has been a worthy addition to the Commons, pressing ministers forcefully but intelligently on a range of issues, not just the environment. When Britain sent forces to Libya, she warned against regime change from the very start. She continues to highlight the plight of Bahrain and Syria and ask why the UK is not taking action to help civilians in these countries. Her arguments for the reform of Westminster have also been well received by MPs.
Best Tory point-scorer
Greg Hands’ pet gripe is Gordon Brown, namely how little he has turned up in the Commons since being turfed out of office. Hands delivers his jokes in a slow sneering drawl which really gets Labour MPs’ backs up. He recently asked Sir George Young for a debate on gold reserves. “The gold price crashed a decade ago when Britain sold its reserves, an event that became known as the ‘Brown bottom’,” he said. “Does he think that this month’s record high will become known as the ‘Balls-up’?” Special mention also goes to Matt Hancock who manages to talk of Labour’s economic legacy in every single intervention he makes.
Best Labour point-scorer
Former minister Kevin Brennan is relishing opposition. He is stinging with criticism of the government at the despatch box as shadow schools minister – but it is on the backbenches that he really comes alive. He loves to raise a laugh by joking about the coalition in questions to Commons Leader Sir George Young. “May we have a debate on reforming PMQs?” he asked recently. “If there was a hooter at the clerk’s desk that sounded every time the prime minister made a factual error, that might help to prevent the patronising of people who are just putting him straight with the facts.”