Hewitt drifts off into foggy world of election slogans

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
WITH ALL this talk of purdah in recent days I had imagined that the Chancellor might absent himself from Treasury questions. Surely he should be reclining in some Civil Service zenana, murmuring sweet nothings at his economic advisers from behind a fetching tartan yashmak. Would the fiscal Nubians who guard him really let him loose at the moment when his virtue was most vulnerable to improper advances?

There he was, though, barefaced in the market place, and subject to the impertinent remarks of every passing Tom, Dick or Angus. Then he stood up to speak and I realised that my anxiety had been hopelessly naive. There was no chance Mr Brown would be seduced into indiscretion by Opposition MPs. After all, he hasn't answered a Conservative question for the past six months. Why should he begin now?

Paul Truswell, Labour member for Pudsey, later asked Barbara Roche whether the Inland Revenue might be encouraged to use plain English in the explanatory leaflets it sends out to taxpayers it has overcharged. This is a laudable aim but one wonders whether Parliament is quite the body to drive it through, having a distinctly ambiguous relationship to our native tongue itself. "We'll take no lessons from politicians on the matter of plain- speaking," the Revenue might legitimately reply.

Sometimes utterance is simply detached from any meaningful content, as when Patricia Hewitt drifted off into one of those fog-machine denunciations of the Conservative Party record, garlanded with dog-eared election slogans ("the people of this country blah blah ... safe in Labour hands ... blah blah"). "Hogwash!" barked Nicholas Winterton furiously after one particularly egregious example, but that was a libel on hogwash, which at least has some nutritional content. Ms Hewitt's remarks bore a much closer relation to what emerges after the hogwash has been through a pig.

Things aren't much better on the other side. Yesterday the trophy for linguistic opacity went to David Amess, one of those people whose personal volume control seems to have been knocked out of whack by a blow to the head.

He boomed out a convoluted question that ended with a request to know how the Chancellor proposed to keep his economic promises "without supposedly not raising taxes". I have meditated on this phrase for some time without being able to penetrate its transcendental enigmas. It is a grammatical Mobius strip and I offer it to readers as a kind of Zen koan - like the sound of one-hand clapping.

Tam Dalyell finally succeeded in dragging George Robertson to the dispatch box to answer a Private Notice Question about the current terms of engagement in Iraq, a fitting reward for his determination over this matter. I doubt if he will have been greatly enlightened by the response, since Mr Robertson's terms of engagement are simple. When a hostile question-mark is detected anywhere over the no-fly zones he dives for the clouds, either citing the continued intransigence of Saddam Hussein (quite a good argument) or flag-waving for our boys in the air (a rather less reputable one). He noted, with the sorrowful regret that is customary on such occasions, that Mr Dalyell had made no reference to the safety of British airmen in his question. This wasn't actually true since Mr Dalyell had specifically asked about the fate of any pilot unlucky enough to be downed, given that no formal state of war existed.

It seems fanciful to imagine that President Saddam would be very fastidious about the legalistic niceties relating to prisoners of war, but if Mr Dalyell is sometimes awry in substance, he continues to be right in principle. Questions should be asked and better answers might yet be given.

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