Harriet Harman came up with one of the strangest political gags of recent times at PMQs today. Ms Harman, who was standing in for Gordon Brown, has been the subject of some speculation that she is currently manoeuvring to replace the PM (who is today solving the world’s problems at the G8).
In response to an opposition jibe on this subject, the bullish Leader of the House hit back that a Harman leadership campaign œwouldn’t be possible because there aren’t enough airports for all the men who would want to flee the country."
This ‘joke’ does not explicitly rule out a potential leadership challenge (to take place either before or after Mr Brown may be defenestrated). But it is a very odd thing to say admit? if you are considering a future leadership bid. It certainly crosses the line from charming and necessary self-deprecation, to being a perhaps-too-honest confession of her own irredeemable limitations as a potential leadership contender.
There are, of course, some well known formulations for politicians who want to tread the fine line between maintaining outward loyalty to their current leader, and leaving some wriggle room open for the future realisation of any remaining ambition. Perhaps the most famous example is Michael Heseltine’s promise that œthere are no circumstances imaginable that he would challenge Margaret Thatcher.
This cunning use of the present tense was recently aped by current Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who said at the height of pre-Brown leadership context speculation last year that œI’m not wavering… I am not a candidate. Mr Miliband is still, at present, not a candidate.
The only way that a politician is able to silence speculation and rule him or herself out of a contest is by copying the famous pre-1884 election formulation of the popular US Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman: "If nominated, I will not accept… If elected, I will not serve."
Staying in the States, the Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who was many people’s favourite to be chosen as Barack Obama’s Vice Presidental running mate, made his own Shermanesque statement earlier this week: œUnder no circumstances will I be a candidate for Vice President." [Note irrevocable and unequivocal use of the future tense]. Harriet Harman’s joke today fell short of such a clear and unambiguous form of words. But the words that she did choose may, perhaps unintentionally, have been enough to rule her out of any realistic bid for the leadership.