Hot air gusts through corridors of powerlessness

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The Independent Online
Whatever the corridors of Westminster reek of, it is not usually power. Only when Secretaries of State emerge from their Whitehall fastnesses does the Chamber resound to the noise of puissance, er, puissing.

Take yesterday for example. During Education questions the Junior Education Minister, Cheryl Gillan, fielded a planted Tory query concerning an alleged Liberal Democrat plan to abolish Church schools. Ms Gillan deprecated this appalling attempt to curtail freedom of choice.

This was too much for the Lib-Dem education spokesman, Don Foster, who leaped to his feet and bellowed his denial at the Tory benches. Mr Foster has not grasped that the dozens of funny little black things hanging from the ornate ceiling of the Chamber are microphones. Many bombastic people are the same, using for public speech a volume and intonation otherwise reserved for making international phone calls and explaining things to foreigners. Several schoolboys asleep in the public gallery were jolted awake by the ferocity of his simple assault: IT IS NOT TRUE!

Nor was it. Ms Gillan read out the full quote to back her argument, but the inclusion of the original words "in an ideal world" made it clear that she was misusing what the LibDems had said. Now it will appear in every Central Office briefing. There is nothing that the noisy Mr Foster can do.

My second illustration of powerlessness is Michael Fabricant, the Tory member for Mid-Staffordshire, who introduced a Ten Minute Bill allowing him to discuss the matter of relations between Britain, America, Europe and the rest of the world. Space flight and inteplanetary exploration were somehow omitted from the Bill's purview. Which was probably a printing error, because no aspect of the galactic historical process is too large or complex to daunt Mr Fabricant from having a clear view of it.

Strangely, whatever part of the world is under discussion, he has been there, or somewhere close by. No matter what occupation or experience is worrying MPs, Mr F has done it for a spell or undergone it.

So he started in Australia and skipped, via an alarming series of cliches, across America (where he had worked in Newhaven, Connecticut - very close to the centre of power in Washington, apparently), back to Britain, glancing briefly at Taiwan. There were windows of opportunity, unlocking doors, a confluence of ways, a failure of stewardship, today's reality, the future's certainty and - most alarmingly - "a fast approaching crossroads". Duck! Finally he confided that "the world is going through a time of change". I wondered idly whether there might have been a brief period, perhaps during the reign of the tenth Rameses, when for a year or so the world had not been going through a time of change. Unlikely.

Mr Fabricant presented his little Bill and sat down. Immediately his fellow Conservative, Edward Leigh, stood up and moved an amendment to the big new divorce Bill - and thus illustrated a third kind of powerlessness. Mr Leigh does not much like divorce. He (rightly) worries for children whom, studies show, suffer from the acrimony of breakdown and deprivation of one of their parents. So far, so good.

What he has not yet grasped, however, is that there isn't much Parliament can do about it. He and the other assorted JPs, Dames and uxorious busybodies around him advocate the retention of the notion of fault to "send a message" from Parliament. But even he had to admit - albeit reluctantly - that we could not return to the days of divorce trials, hotels in Brighton and private detectives. On this sort of issue the "message", of course, flows the other way. Alas, by the time that Mr Leigh finished, the only man who could possibly have helped him out had left the chamber. Mr Fabricant was gone.