Ministry of sound pumps up the volume

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It had been a pleasant lunch, followed by a brisk walk, and I entered the Chamber just as the bishop, who conducts daily prayers, was leaving (I bet he's a supporter of New Labour). So I fell into a reverie up in the gallery. Below me party jibes were exchanged gently across the Chamber, above me - beyond the skylight - swallows were skimming through the bright autumn air.

And suddenly, like rap music played on a monster hi-fi at 3am in a suburban mews, a bellowing voice woke the slumbering journalists with a jolt, and had the clerks pulling their wigs over their ears.

"ONLY WE HAVE GIVEN THE PLEDGE TO INCREASE HEALTH SPENDING YEAR BY YEAR BY YEAR BY YEAR", roared the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell.

Who, I wondered, was he yelling at? What had annoyed him so badly? Gradually, as Mr Dorrell answered all questions at the top of his voice, I realised that he was not angry, but that the volume control on his larynx had broken.

Breakfast in the Dorrell household must be a trial, with the kids in ear-muffs, all the glassware hidden, and Dad asking whether there is "ANY MORE TOAST!"

From the Labour front bench Tessa Jowell, dressed in the New Labour uniform of short-bob and twin-set (powder-blue, for those of you wondering what the Follett Girls are wearing this autumn), asked a fair-enough question about the use of "finished consultant episodes" as a measure of patient treatment (the same patient released too early from hospital, then re- treated, counts twice). This was Dorrell's reply, shouted at a zillion decibels: "SHE STILL REFUSES TO GIVE THE PLEDGE THAT SHE WILL INCREASE SPENDING YEAR BY YEAR BY YEAR BY YEAR BY YEAR!"

Of course she does. If she committed herself to spending one penny extra on corn-plasters, it would be the end of Labour's attempt to portray itself as the prudent party; the sky would fall on their heads and all would be lost.

Dorrell's pledge (which originated with the Prime Minister at the party conference) is thus designed specifically to embarrass the opposition.

So it was tactically risky for Tony Blair to raise the issue of health during Prime Minister's Questions later on. But he did.

"The NHS is in a state of crisis", what was the Government going to do about it?

Put tons and tons of money into it, unlike you lot, said Mr Major. No, you should cut bureaucracy and make it more efficient, said Mr Blair, in a total role reversal. But the Socialist Health Association says that would be wrong, the Prime Minister replied surrealistically.

Perhaps it was the oddness of this exchange that set up a remarkable Majorism, also on health. Paddy (who has stared death in the face, and is not afraid of putting taxes up) had done his bit on trolleys in corridors and half-completed brain surgery, and the PM had given a weary "wait-for- the-budget" answer, ending with "I have nothing further to say". Then, suddenly adding in a loud high-pitched voice (left over from Stephen Dorrell, perhaps), "EXCEPT THIS!"

"This" was the pledge to increase health spending year after year after year etc. "You don't have to look in the mirror", Mr Major said emphatically, "when you can look at the record".

No, I suppose not. Why worry about what you look like now, when you can read about what you looked like a long time ago? It makes perfect sense.

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