Just like old times as Smilealot slays the Grey Knight

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The Independent Online
Parliament is, apparently, a wonderful place. "Since the Reformation", opined the Eurosceptic Iain Duncan-Smith (of whom more later), "laws have been made and crafted by Parliament and scrutinised line by line". Note the words: crafted; scrutinised. This is an image of our legislature as a congregation of silversmiths, infinitely patient and careful in their valuable work - a Guild of British Politicians.

If this romantic picture has a historical, slightly mediaeval, resonance, then so too does the reality of political debate in the House. Twice a week mortal combat takes place between the two nominated champions of the big parties, in front of a partisan crowd. On one side is the young champion, wisps of golden hair protruding from his helm, clad all in silven armour with the favours of thousands of ladies hanging from his lance. His opponent is that grizzled veteran, The Knight of The Rather Doleful Countenance, his breastplate covered in the dents of old conflicts, his back-plate even more hacked about from the blows of colleagues.

The main weapon of both is contempt, which - like the huge longswords of yore - tends to be unwieldy and inaccurate. So on Tuesdays and Thursdays they totter under the weight of their blades, circling slowly, hoping to land a blow in the right place. Succeed and they will lop off a limb, cleave a crest or hew a head. Cries of triumph will go up and morale will rise. But usually both retire exhausted at the end of the contest, with no clear advantage to either side.

Yesterday, however, Smilealot laid out the Grey Knight. Was it possible, he had asked, for the Prime Minister to clarify exactly what dire and dread action - as hinted at by the Foreign Secretary - would be taken by his government should the Europeans not rescind their ban on the Beef of Britain? To counter this line of attack Mr Major held aloft his shield. And on it was written "we shall look at other options". That was a leg gone.

Blair's turn. What exactly were these options? Mr Major jumped to his remaining leg and responded that he (Mr Major) had clearly told him (Mr Blair) already, and was sorry that he hadn't understood. Which was clearly nonsense. So that was an arm off.

Blair delivered the coup de grace, amid a flurry of his favourite epithets ("divided, weak, incompetent" etc). From the pool of political blood in which he was now lying Mr Major croaked something about Labour's tax plans and expired. Blair smiled with relief, but aware that tomorrow (like in the Highlander films) he will have to do it all over again. He knows the whole business is neither pretty nor effective, yet continues to be regarded as a test of courage and virility.

Far better argument was to be heard immediately afterwards, when the aforementioned Iain Duncan-Smith introduced a bill designed to counter the powers of the European Court of Justice over Britain. It was a 10- minute bill, so called because 10 minutes is allotted to its discussion. Just enough time for one speech in favour and one against.

After the thudding and bashing of PMQs, this was Greek wrestling. Two oiled combatants, their speeches sinuous, clever and, above all, well- argued, twisted around each other. Mr Duncan-Smith's watchmaking Parliament was being frustrated by a remote bench of foreign judges. Norman Lamont and John Redwood nodded vigorously.

Sounding eerily like James Naughtie of the Today programme, Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy slid into the ring. Just as Mr Duncan-Smith failed to mention any of the benefits of the European Court, Mr Kennedy sought no faults. The Court prevented abuses by other countries. Full stop.

Ten minutes being up, Mr Kennedy won the vote (just) and Mr Duncan-Smith the argument (just). And all in two-thirds of the time it takes for Prime Minister's questions.

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