Contempt and content for a crime without punishment

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The Independent Online
It was 3.32pm when the first encumbered MPs began to file slowly into the chamber, each bearing the burden of their own copy of the Scott report. Some staggered under the weight of the thick green tomes. Others, doubtless fresh from the bench-press in the Commons gym, bore them more jauntily. Nicholas Winterton nearly dropped his in the lap of a rather distressed-looking female colleague; Toby Jessel rested, panting, halfway up the steps. Some old Labour hands simply refused to collect theirs and sat there in mute reproach as if to suggest to the world the scale of the farce that was now unfolding.

And farce it was. Eight minutes after what looked from the gallery like a procession of bundles on legs had begun to occupy the benches, Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, stood up to make his statement.

He, of course, had an advantage. The 1,800 pages of the report had been with some ministers for more than a week. Now, Sir Richard's deliberations are almost exactly the length of, say, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1,350 pages), added to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (another 500). Had this been some epic novel, Mr Lang would have had enough time to read it, write a majesterial review for a long-winded literary journal, and then spend the weekend in Venice.

Not so Robin Cook. Labour's foreign affairs spokesman had three-and- a-half hours in a sequestered dungeon deep in the Department of Trade and Industry. This should be just enough time for a schoolboy to comb the very long book looking for dirty bits (substituting "misleading the House" for "then he caressed her silken thighs") and finding the juciest.

Civil servants who might be criticised by Sir Richard had an hour - sufficient to think up a method of self-slaughter, and to implement it. Finally came the MPs, with between 10 and no minutes. Their expressions as they set about their task brought to mind those newspaper adverts headlined "Do you read too slowly?" and featuring a stupid-looking chap with his tongue stuck into his lower lip.

Bill Cash examined his copy for references to Eurofederalism. One held his upside down. Occasionally an MP would turn to a bemusedneighbour to point out some tantalising recommendation, exoneration or condemnation. But they did not even know where to start.

Nor need they have bothered. Content was nothing, textual analysis everything. Mr Lang, it became clear, had been reading a different book from his Labour opponent. His, like Mr Seth's, was a saga of good intentions, of guilessness, of useful naivity. Sir Richard was clear: nothing bad had happened. Evil, if it existed, lay solely in the minds of those on the benches opposite who had been unspeakably horrid to ministers, and now should say sorry. The Conservatives sighed with relief.

Unfortunately for Mr Lang the Government had compounded its recent errors over its care in the community policy, allowing Mr Cook out of the safe DTI basement and into Parliament. Labour's man, with his bulging eyes and fierce red facial hair, resembles a berserker warrior in one of those Scottish armies that Mel Gibson leads. His weapon, however, is not the Lochaber axe, but withering contempt at four paces. You would not want to meet him in a dark alley. There would be a brief flash as his tongue cut the night air, a moment of terrible pain as your career shrivelled - and then oblivion.

The berserker had not been reading A Suitable Minister but Crime and Punishment. His was a tale of guilt, deceit, and the need for retribution. The pendulum swung. The mock indignation of Mr Lang's revelation that his opponent had wasted 10 minutes of report-reading time by "talking to journalists" before descending to the bunker, completely back-fired. His call for the rampant Mr Cook to resign, his career "blighted", provoked real embarrassment behind him.

But in the end, who was a girl to believe? Her whips of course. Ignorant MPs cheered their man and cat-called other parties. Each one had a lapful of incredibly important report but no time whatsoever to read it or to make their own judgement on behalf of their constituents.

And, irony of ironies, what is Sir Richard's most important conclusion? That we need more open government with better accountability of ministers to Parliament, that's what.