Disturbing questions of ancient family history

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The Independent Online
Every day - no matter how tedious or arcane the agenda of the House - dozens of ordinary British citizens sit in the public gallery, trying desperately to work out what on earth is happening. Why do sudden roars of laughter punctuate routine statements? Why do MPs of both major parties shout "Hear, Hear", when their party leaders walk into the chamber? What happened in Jacques "Buzz-saw" Arnold's childhood that was so disturbing?

Yesterday the gallery was nearly full when Treasury questions began. Theoretically these should be quite good fun, bringing into opposition the substantial figures of Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown. Children in the uniforms of some of our most expensive prep schools sat up straight in expectation, and retired district nurses from Andover (with tickets for Parliament and Cats) leaned forward excitedly.

And indeed there was an exchange between the two giants - but a very desultory one. Both men are far too busy fending off their true political enemies to bother very much about each other. Besides, their mutual liking is obvious, as is the extent of their agreement on all matters of substance. So a Gordon question consists of discovering all the statistics about the economy that are unfavourable, and Ken's response brings together all those that are good. Confusingly these often seem to be exactly the same statistics shoved into the opposite sentence. Where Gordon intones "up . . . up . . . down . . . rising . . . falling. . . high. . . low", Ken comes back with "down. . . down. . . up. . . falling. . . rising . . . low. . . high". It may not be enlightening, but at least sketch-writers and district nurses understand what is going on.

Easy too to see what Dennis Skinner was driving at when he invited the Chancellor to tell the French President (or "that Shee-rack" in the argot of Derbyshire) not to bother with a single currency. It was supposed to happen in 1994, 1995, 1999 - and hadn't. "The momentum has gone," declared Skinner, "so why don't they address er . . ." But the momentum had gone.

All at once the "Hear, Hears" went up for Prime Minister's Questions. So, summoning up all the empathy of which I was capable, I tried to see the proceedings through the puzzled eyes of the public. It must seem like tuning at random into an episode of an incredibly intricate soap opera. You try hard to infer the past from the present - and usually fail. Bits of ancient family history, political gossip and archaic procedure combine to create an impenetrable common legacy.

Take, for instance, the question that didn't get asked. Fourth or fifth in the list to tax the PM with some point of exceptional importance, was the desiccated and sententious chairman of the Conservative backbench finance committee, John Townend. Some years ago, in a moment of madness for which we are all still paying, somebody decided that Mr Townend was an "influential" backbencher. As a result we have had to endure hundreds of interventions and television appearances, most of them demanding that the Chancellor wreck the economy by handing out vast tax cuts.

There is a convention that the PM should only be asked about his duties during Question Time. So he can only be invited to indulge in point-scoring by ritual, involving a code, such as: "As the Prime Minister visits Zimbabwe next week, will he reflect upon the disasters that will afflict the developing world should the party opposite win the next election?". This is kosher. "Will the PM say what a bunch of shysters the Labour Party are," is not.

Mr Townend, who has only been an MP for nearly 20 years, failed to obey the convention. He was literally howled down. The district nurses frowned.

"If that's the best he can do", thundered Betty, "I'm having Mr Ashdown." Which, of course, brought the House - with its taste for Sixties Carry On double entendres - down. Now it was the turn of the pupils to look baffled.