MC Betty puts Hansard chart-toppers on House playlist

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
THE ROLE of Speaker in the House could be likened to that of a disc jockey, adjusting the mood of the gathering by a careful variation of style and tempo - now a slow number to cool things down, now one that is certain to get the wallflowers jumping. There is a playlist, of course, the Order Paper detailing those MPs whose questions have been drawn, and dictating the sequence in which they will be called. But MC Betty still has considerable leeway to extend the discussion of a topic or to move on to a fresh one and, like any speaker who wants to stay sane, she has a prejudice in favour of the more entertaining MPs, the Hansard chart- toppers who can pretty much guarantee an airing on any given subject.

Yesterday she employed her prerogative in a rather striking way, calling Tam Dalyell to ask a questionearly in Prime Minister's Questions, despite the fact that his name wasn't on the Order Paper. "The Honourable Gentleman was fortunate to catch my eye," she said archly later, when he raised another Point of Order about Iraq. Very fortunate, given that he wasn't in his usual seat and was almost invisible behind a ruck of Labour colleagues. Perhaps Ms Boothroyd is getting a little bored, or perhaps she simply agrees with Martin Bell, who was on theplaylist, and who used his moment to ask the Prime Minister whether he would encourage "more freedom for back-benchers" so that Parliament could be something more than a rubber stamp assembly.

Mr Blair cheerfully pointed out that Party discipline was a relatively simple matter for Mr Bell, since his party's Chief Whip, Leader and Awkward Squad all inhabit the same white suit. But then he got serious; no paying lip-service to the honourable traditions of parliamentary scrutiny, no pious words about the importance of vigorous debate, just a flat assertion of power. "I happen to believe we are entitled as a Government to put through our programme." If Labour backbenchers had felt insurrection thrill in their veins at Mr Bell's remarks (and there were excitable moos from both sides of the House) then Mr Blair's steely reply will have sedated them back into biddable dormancy.

The Prime Minister's commitment to party discipline isn't inconsistent, of course, with the cheerful encouragement of independence in Mr Hague's backbenchers. He was positively chummy after Ian Taylor, a prominent Europhile Tory, had asked a question about space programme investment, noting mischievously that they could discuss which of their colleagues they would most like to put into orbit. "I've a feeling we might just agree on that," grinned Mr Blair as his front bench stabbed their fingers gleefully in Mr Hague's direction. The Tory leader's forehead glowed like a heatshield on re-entry.

But perhaps Mr Hague was already on some other planet. During Points of Order, just after the Prime Minister had left, James Pace revealed that Mr Blair had overshot when replying to a recent question about whether European inspectors had been invited to inspect British abattoirs. Taking an evens bet, the Prime Minister had assured the House, in slightly flustered tones, that the invitation had already been issued. But after diligent detective work, Mr Pace had established that the fax only went out the following day, presumably splashed with a few drops of ministerial sweat. Maybe Mr Hague wasn't aware of this pertinent little embarrassment - if so, Mr Pace deserves to be ticked off by the whips for hogging his scoop. But if he was told, I think he seriously missed a trick. If I was preparing to bandy statistics with Mr Blair, as Mr Hague was with an assault on tax rises and fudged hospital waiting lists, I would have thought it more than a little handy to be able to demonstrate that the Prime Minister's confident assertions can't always be relied upon to correspond to reality.