Lesser Tory cracks over egghead's fall

All Harry had to do was not mention Willetts, sleaze and fibbing. He really should have managed it
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With what pleasure did backbenchers on all sides of the House contemplate the fall from grace of D Willetts Esq! For Labour members this was quite an uncomplicated emotion. From their angle of vision Willetts was a supercilious enemy egghead - his nervous, twitchy manner and beady eye making him look like the heron that lives by the pond at All Souls.

Tories had more interesting reasons for exulting at Mr Willetts' demise. The most obvious was that the appointment of a new paymaster general (a title of Heseltinian grandiloquence) and the resulting reshuffle meant that someone - until then languishing on the back benches - now finds himself enjoying a month or two of constrained power.

But by far the most significant reason for their pleasure is the hatred that the dim harbour for the very bright. Imagine how galling it is to watch this brain-on-legs swan into the top flight at an early age, while the chap who has been there years - who has horse sense, who knows what the voters want and how to give it to 'em - has to settle for being chair of the Anglo-Andorran Parliamentary Forum. When the Labour Party's Brian Wilson described Mr Willetts as a man with "two brains and no common sense", he tapped deep into an anti-intellectualism that is shared by many MPs.

Certainly, as I peered down from my eyrie at the assembly below yesterday, I could see many MPs who would serve their country well by resigning their seats; unlike the able Mr Willetts, they never would be missed. And little could exemplify Mr Major's luck better than the fact that one of the silliest of his MPs had drawn first slot in the draw to ask him a question.

Harry Greenway, the member for Ealing North since 1979, manages somehow to be a rebuke to many professions at once. He was once a headmaster of a large school, yet behaves like the class joke of 2M. He sits on the council of the Open University, but even his most partisan colleagues snigger when he gets up to speak. Yesterday all Mr Greenway had to do was to ask Mr Major some simple question about the social chapter or tax, and then sit down again. Only one topic - Willetts, sleaze and fibbing - had to be avoided.

And, given that his choice was the British veto, he really should have managed it. Could the Prime Minister confirm that "he will not abandon the British veto [pause] or rather, dissemble the veto ..." Dissemble? Where had we heard that word before? Dissemble! shouted the Labour benches, happily. What Willetts was accused of! It was, of course, completely the wrong word, unnecessarily inserted in such a way as to give maximum discomfort to the PM and maximum assistance to Mr Prescott (standing in for Mr Blair, who was away practising to be Prime Minister).

But why had Mr Greenway done it? Had the whips, noticing his name on the order paper and - after having cast their eyes to heaven - taken him aside and begged "Whatever you do, Harry, don't say `dissemble'"? Then, like the bloke meeting Cyrano de Bergerac for the first time - and strictly enjoined not to stare at the nose - had Harry's synapses gone haywire, propelling the word "dissemble" from his memory, shooting it past his consciousness and straight into his mouth?

Whatever the explanation, it was the worst possible start to Prime Minister's Question Time, and will have left Mr Major reflecting that the worst combination in politics is no brain and no common sense.