How to stay decent by letting others dish the dirt

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Every now and again a soft and deadly thought finds its way into the pudgiest folds of my brain, and lodges there comfortably. This is the idea that the worst that can happen at the next election is that John Major will be re-elected.

The Prime Minister - a transparently decent bloke (says this little thought) - will continue to bumble along pleasantly for another five years, so does it really matter? Fortunately, yesterday was one of those days when this seductive microbe found itself battered by the reality of the Chamber. A great question was posed, and could not be satisfactorily resolved. It was this: if John Major is such a great guy, how come Michael Howard is his Home Secretary? Would any reasonable, go-ahead chap populate the entire Home Office front bench with a collection of crass populists, vicarious sadists, casual xenophobes and brain-dead time-servers?

Timothy Kirkhope, hammer of "bogus asylum-seekers" was not pressed into service yesterday, having no anti-immigrant rant from his backbenches with which he could agree (but John Major is an honourable man). Instead we had Tom Sackville responding to a series of questions on the legalisation of cannabis for medical use. His first reply (to Labour's Gordon Prentice) was bureaucratic - "level of product quality" etc. His second, however, gave the game away. Harry Greenway, the tanned ex-headmaster from Ealing, offered his opinion on cannabis. Was it not a fact, he asked Mr Sackville, that "soft drugs lead on to hard drugs inevitably, and hard drugs lead to death, often within seven years?"

A responsible minister would have replied thus: "Bollocks. If what what my honourable friend was saying was true, an entire generation - including many of my own pals - would be pushing up the daisies, rather than sitting in the House of Commons, or running British industry. Get a life." Instead Sackville assented happily to Greenway's nonsense, adding a gratuitous attack on the Liberal Democrats for daring even to discuss the legalisation of cannabis. (But John Major, we know, is an honourable man.)

Now it was David "Shouter" Maclean's turn. Shouter has a ghetto blaster instead of a head, and every question is met with a decibellage that would earn a council tenant instant eviction. Labour's Hugh Bayley asked about crime figures in West Yorkshire since 1979 (adding a silly bit of "they must go" sound-bitery to a good question). What cheek, bellowed Mr Maclean. Labour had voted against everything the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire had wanted to strengthen crime control (stiffer sentences, uncontrolled phone-tapping, the rack), "They hadn't the guts to support the Crime Bill on Tuesday," he screamed. Stop the rhetoric, someone advised him. "I don't give the House rhetoric!" yelled Mr Maclean. "I give the House facts!" Famous Maclean facts (readers will recall) include the notorious observation that all beggars are Scottish. (John Major, however, is an honourable man.)

Michael Howard, dealing with a tame question about a Lib Dem council, reluctant to invest millions in closed circuit TV said that Lib Dems "don't care in the slightest about taking effective action on crime". Oh yes? And who would you look to for support if attacked by bullies on a dark night - Michael Howard or Paddy Ashdown?

Sure, John Major is an honourable man. He gets others to do the dirty work.