Blunt talking saves sanity of man pushed to the brink

The Sketch
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READERS MAY be familiar with the almost irresistible urge to shriek that sometimes overwhelms one in periods of intense boredom. I hope to God they are not as familiar with it as I am, since that dread of imminent intellectual asphyxiation is as inseparable from sketch writing as pneumoconiosis is from coal mining.

I took very bad in the last 15 minutes of Treasury Questions yesterday - limbs twitching, mouth involuntarily shaping itself around oaths that remained unvoiced only through a powerful effort of will. That and the training, of course, since no parliamentary sketch writer can begin practising until he or she has passed the SAS course in psychological endurance, designed to help captured soldiers ride out bouts of mental torture.

Some of the methods are covered by the Official Secrets Act, naturally, but it is hardly a criminal revelation to say that clutching at straws is one of the more important techniques.

When it comes to Treasury Questions - a peculiarly sterile collision of incompatible realities - even real straw would do. What a multifarious and fascinating substance it would seem, set beside a Treasury frontbench answer to yet another Opposition question about the Withholding Tax. How rich in cultural allusion, how nostalgic in fragrance, how deliciously provocative when pushed up the nostril!

Mostly, though, I'm talking about metaphorical straws - those rare moments when members abandon abstraction and actually talk about real objects. When David Heath asked a question about duties on bottle-fermented cider, for instance, he blamed the imposition on action taken to prevent some nasty Italian fizzy drink. This wasn't much of a cranny for the mind to shelter in, but it served. Which nasty Italian drink did he have in mind, I wondered, since the field is hardly small? After all, the Italians lead the world in the production of nasty drinks, having created liqueurs from artichokes, chilli pepper and (I'm judging from the taste, you understand) the ear-wax of Franciscan monks. Perhaps the sacrifice of a few West Country sparkling cider artisans was worth it to keep this scourge out of British off-licences.

I emerged into consciousness to find that the Opposition was attacking the Chancellor over potential job losses. Questions about the effects of the Withholding Tax and a proposed increase in the VAT on imported art works were asked in tones of righteous anger at the Chancellor's indifference to the innocent victims of his policy.

Labour MPs looked less than aghast at the prospect of merchant bankers and Bond Street dealers finding out what a P45 looks like, but perhaps they accepted the Government's insistence that it was fighting both measures. The Opposition didn't, interrupting the Chancellor's claim that he would oppose the Withholding Tax with a demand that he state - right now and unequivocally - that he would oppose the Withholding Tax.

I began to twitch again but was saved by a lively intervention from Crispin Blunt, venturing into the realms of analogy with a question about the Fuel Tax Escalator. The Government, he said, was behaving like "demented four-year-olds running around a department store". This was more like it: a vivid image had just insinuated itself into the procession of drab cliches, like a streaker at a Soviet parade.

But Labour MPs were outraged and Madam Speaker backed them. "Use better language than that," she said fiercely, meaning "duller language". But Mr Blunt's image was back to front, since it is the Tories who want to run down the escalator again, while the Chancellor is obeying the rules by holding on to the handrail.

Still, a straw is a straw, and without this one I don't think I would have made it.