Non-shouty questions set the right tone

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The Independent Online
Tonetone the Boy Prime Minister had had a busy morning, reviewing the entire judicial system and banning landmines. Tories were still shell- shocked ("first cigarettes, then alcohol and now landmines. What'll a chap do on a Saturday night?"). Now it was time for his first, brand-new, non-shouty, once a week (it had been twice) double-length Prime Minister's Questions - and he was anxious that it go well.

Being extra brave he'd decided that he wouldn't use any notes. Gone was that huge green folder, with its endless briefing papers and yellow highlit put-downs. He was on his own! Furthermore, he'd be nice to everyone, and set a positive mood.

Not everyone got it, of course. The sallow and lugubrious Eric Prentice (Lab, Pendle) - who has been wandering the bleak Lancashire moors too long - asked a strongly worded question about transport. "Passengers had been left high and dry by Stagecoach," he shouted, archaically. It was a "shaming indictment of the previous administration". "Mmm," said Blair, softly. "A shaming indictment? Well, we will have to leave that to others." Anyway, he went on, Mr Prescott would be dealing with transport. Mr Prescott gave a sweet little smile and nodded, like a kindergarten teacher encouraging constructive play among her four year olds.

After that, Labour seekers after truth took the niceness injunction to heart in an almost grisly way. Jean Corston (Bristol East), was the first of many. Would Tonetone care to set out his policies for convicting more nasty criminals? He would. He did.

Stuart Bell (Middlesborough) thought 26 bills in one Queen's Speech was just terrific. "What does he propose as an encore?" he greased.

Embarrassed, Tonetone did a bit of obscure namedropping, "as the Association of Estate Agents was saying just the other day ..." No-one laughed at the invocation of this dubious organisation.

Stephen Twigg (Lab, Enfield Southgate), the genial vanquisher of Michael Portillo, expressed concern about drugs. Since Twigg is a recent president of the National Union of Students, there was a chance that his complaint was against the soaring price of dope. But no. It was another invitation to Tonetone to tell us what he had been up to earlier in the morning, and his plans to appoint a "drugs tsar".

Happiest was Paddy Ashdown. He had two questions, where before he only had one! What interrogatory riches! He spent them asking tough things about extra dosh for education, and - in bite two - how Tonetone's figures didn't add up. "I do not accept that at all," replied the PM. An expert body (it may even have been the Association of Estate Agents again) had said his figures did add up. So don't worry.

It had been raining, and - with play at the Oval stopped for bad weather - Mr Major had dropped in. He got three questions, all to do with the windfall tax. He thought that Iain Vallance at BT had seemed suspiciously fed up to be told that his company might have to cough up for the windfall tax. Had he been tipped the wink that his company would be exempted come the revolution? Mr Major gently required a categorical assurance that no Labourite had behaved in this shocking way.

So, in the best traditions of old and new Prime Minister's Questions, Tonetone gave a categorical assurance - about something else entirely. If it does transpire that some maverick teenager did speak out of turn to the BT man, at least the new PM will not have lied to the House.

And that - more or less - was that. It had all been rather successful. The MPs quite liked it. Sensible exchanges had been had, and there was still time for ten radical new measures before bed.

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