Parliament & Politics: One MP's claim to be quickest draw in the House

The Sketch

IT PROMISED to be a thin day in the Commons - only education questions on the order paper before the few MPs left would be summoned by Black Rod to shuffle down the corridor and attend the prorogation of Parliament in the Lords.

During such dull passages my attention tends to drift to John Bercow, a meagre oasis of entertainment but a dependable one nonetheless. It isn't Mr Bercow's questions that provide relief from monotony - though they are usually sharp enough - but the energy he expends on getting them asked.

He is by some distance the most strenuous questioner in the House, leaping to his feet in the brief lull between speeches like a junior subaltern whose commanding officer has just entered the room. He does this a lot and while he is waiting for the critical moment he tenses in his place like an athlete waiting for a gun, his arms poised on the seatback, ready to propel him upright.

Quite frequently, there is a false start when he mistakes a pause for breath as a full stop, but there are no grave penalties in Parliament for exploding out of the blocks too early (only the mock sympathy of backbenchers on the other side) and, in the end, Mr Bercow will be streaking down the track, hurdling a couple of awkward statistics as he goes.

I don't often speculate on the lower limbs of opposition members, but every time I watch Mr Bercow going for the burn I can't help thinking that he must have thighs like a Tour de France cyclist. He should market a video of his interventions under the title of "Question Time Calisthenics", a unique opportunity to combine Thatcherite dogma with a comprehensive aerobic workout.

In the Lords, rising to ask questions is never anywhere near as vigorous. Indeed, it's quite often a moot point whether the older members will make it to a standing position at all. Doing it once is touch and go, expecting repetitions would be absurd. And though they did open yesterday's session by considering health issues, the debate involved the reduction of exercise rather than its increase.

Did the Government realise, asked one Conservative peer, that legislation on not selling aspirins in bulk meant that some people had to visit the chemist's 12 times a year to fill out their prescriptions? He made it sound as if the Government had decided to locate pharmacies on mountain tops to prevent impulse suicides among teenagers. Lord Stewartby then identified himself as someone who "takes junior aspirin daily in the hopes of avoiding a heart attack brought on by the excitement of the proceedings in this House".

There was nothing obviously life threatening about the prorogation itself, though it is possible that an overzealous attempt to stifle a giggle could bring on an infarction in peers with weak hearts. The riskiest moment was when the leaders of the various parties in the House re-entered in their ceremonial robes, all wearing admirals hats or tricornes. They looked like they were about to sing a medley of songs from Iolanthe and the Pirates of Penzance, but only Lord Irvine got a speaking part, sending Black Rod on his way with as much solemnity as it is possible to muster when you look like a heritage collection Toby mug.

But there was a dangerous passage too when the clerks read out the list of Bills which had passed into law. "Waste Minimisation Bill," boomed one; "La Reyne le veult," sang out the other corporate technospeak. What a pity it is that failed Bills don't get an acknowledgement here too. "European Elections Bill," one clerk could have shouted, and the other would then have responded with the time-hallowed formula of disapproval - "La Reyne a dit au-dessus de mon corps mort".

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