As always, Hain was just a bit too darn smooth

Last updated at 00:59 25 January 2008

What with the Hollywood screenwriters' strike, Peter Hain's well-rehearsed act of hara-kiri yesterday could be as close as we get to an Oscars weepie acceptance speech this year.

Mr Hain had his back to the wall in more than one sense. He was standing outside the Department of Work and Pensions building - round by the back of Westminster Abbey - and he was practically squished by a crowd of TV cameras and news reporters. Flash bulbs pinged. Camera shutters slattered.

A BBC woman was crouched at the ex-minister's feet, rather like a highwire artist's catcher at the circus. A tall, seigneurial correspondent from one of the rolling news channels stood nearby in expensive scarf and a dark, full-length overcoat, rocking on his heels as he appraised the scene with the eye of a connoisseur.

Mr Hain, like any Oscars night speechifier, had a lot of people to thank: his wife (slight blink and just a hint of wetness in the eye); his colleagues in the Cabinet and on the Labour back benches; and most of all, folks, his Prime Minister.

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Peter Hain

Would that be the same Prime Minister who undermined him with that remark about 'an incompetence'? I'm afraid it would. By appearing in person Mr Hain avoided any appearance of further shiftiness. He could have fled in the back of a speeding car but he had decided to take his medicine like a man.

It must have taken some guts to stand there and speak without the voice breaking or the lower lip trembling.

Mind you, no questions were permitted. And the sheer fluency of the statement reminded us of the problem many voters always had with Hain: just a bit too darn smooth.

By my timing, news of Mr Hain's demise broke at 12.22pm. The House of Commons was at that point discussing next week's business, a session taken by Harriet Harman, who beat Mr Hain and others to the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

At 12.26 a Conservative whip, Andrew Robathan, consulted his Blackberry handheld computer. His eyebrows did a little jump. He peered more closely at the computer's screen and a small smile crept on to his lips. He turned in his seat and spoke to the backbencher sitting behind him, Andrew Mackay (Bracknell), showing him the news.

Word now passed along the Opposition front bench, from Theresa May to Shailesh Vara. Another Tory was at that very moment complaining to Ms Harman that "MPs' pay has gone down in recent years". Mr Robathan, from a sedentary position: "Peter Hain's certainly will do now."

At about 12.40pm a printout from the BBC website, which had also by now caught up with Mr Hain's misfortune, was discreetly passed to Ms Harman's ragbag-attired deputy, Helen Goodman.

At 12.43 Mr Mackay wondered if Ms Harman might grant the House an emergency statement on the breaking news. Plenty of whispering was now evident in the Chamber as MPs gossiped.

At 12.48pm a messenger arrived at the side of the Speaker's two wigged clerks and passed them, too, a copy of the BBC printout. Fastidious creatures, they took the item with delicate fingers, holding it as a pathologist might handle a bullet he has just removed from the gut of a murder victim.

At 12.49, said exhibit was passed to Gorbals Mick - last to hear the news, as ever!

Speaker Martin read the printout, gestured to a Labour whip as though to ask "is it true?", and then, on receiving confirmation, winced. The supposedly strictly-impartial Speaker gave the sort of expression which said, "ooh, that must have hurt".

During the debate on MPs' pay which followed, Shadow Leader of the House Mrs May had some critical words for Fleet Street. She accused the Press of "misreporting" matters concerning politicians' remuneration. It was "disappointing" and it "damaged our democracy", said Mrs May.

But for the Press, of course, Peter Hain's misdeeds might never have come to light. That, too, would have been bad for our democracy. But Mrs May omitted to say that.