Labour's prefects assume air of responsibility amid the rabble

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The Independent Online
Few things depress the spirit as much as the sight of the Labour front bench succumbing to another fit of responsibility. From parliamentary dawn (2.30pm) to sketch-writers' dusk (5.00pm) the only thing Labour front- benchers were passionate about was their own enormous moderation and common sense.

Defence questions showed why they do it. The Tories could be as appalling as they liked. Robert Atkins, one of the greatest shouters and organisers of barracking in the Commons, his hair slicked back and teeth bared in a bounder's smile, stood to ask ministers to condemn the BBC's Panorama programme for "making trouble" between Britain and one of its "closest friends and allies" - Saudi Arabia. The Secretary of State for Michael Portillo's head jerked forwards and then back again in gigantic assent, almost as though some invisible headsman had just pricked his spine. "Jobs, jobs", shouted Keith Mans (former Vulcan pilot) at Labour members who dared shake their heads at the idea that an Islamic theocracy should effectively hold a British government to ransom.

Peter Butler (Milton Keynes North East) then asked James Arbuthnot, a junior defence minister, to condemn the Transport Union's resolution calling for defence cuts. Would this not mean a policy whereby we would "not be able to defend the nation" if attacked? "It would be rather worse than that," the old Etonian replied. Really? Worse? You mean we would be unable to defend the nation even if not attacked? "And Labour conference after conference has voted for this policy", he squeaked. In vain did David Clark, for Labour, seek to reassure the House that this was not now Labour's stance; that when it came to the security of the country all would be safe in Tony Blair's hands.

Just how safe became apparent later, when discussion turned to the strange Bill that the Government was rushing through yesterday, allowing more powers to the police.

Labour's shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, had been given a secret briefing and alerted to a threat that required urgent action. He and his colleague, Ann Taylor, the shadow Leader of the House, had to explain why they were prepared to go along with such a rushed piece of legislation. This would not be easy, given the principal factor in the unseemly haste appeared to be the unexpected appearance of the Easter recess at roundabout Easter time, coinciding with the unforeseeable 80th anniversary of the Dublin Easter Rising.

But few wear responsibility with more gravitas than Mr Straw and Ms Taylor. They are respectively like the head-boy and head-girl at a strict co- educational comprehensive school. They understand that running the school is a hard job, and in return for a badge will do all they can to help. It was sad but essential - when the beak told them what was required, said Ms Taylor they "had not demured (sic) from that view". When her own backbencher, Dale Campbell-Savours, suggested to her that one should never rush legislation that impacted upon civil liberties, she replied that there were "always difficulties in saying never". But presumably never any in saying always.

So it was left to Liberal Democrat Alan Beith to demure. And very well he did it. He demured about the motives for the hurry and about the idea that there had been no alternative. Although actually, he admitted, some action might be necessary. This brought laughter from the prefects on Labour's front bench. Mr Beith hit back, regretting that Labour "could see no difference between the virtues of what they wish to carry out, and the procedures they use to carry it out". True, but this close to an election the ends nearly always justify the means.