Parliament: Man of Straw is unhurt after treading on a dummy

The Sketch
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DURING DEFENCE Questions George Robertson proudly announced that the British Army had laid their last landmine; all existing stocks had been destroyed, he told the House, and the last five models had been rendered harmless and handed over as macabre trophies to the bodies which had campaigned for their withdrawal. This must have been a touching ceremony, what with its ritual invocations of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the word-pictures of children gambolling through virgin meadows. We should not forget, however, that there are still explosive devices out there, concealed in the most innocuous by-ways, and a little later, as if to remind us of the continuing dangers, the latest victim turned up to tell the House about his accident.

The morning papers had unanimously reported that the Home Secretary had trodden on a judicial landmine over the weekend, in his case a relatively innocuous device which was designed to propel egg into the face of its target at high velocity. Tory members had turned up in large numbers to gloat over the Home Secretary's injury and, if at all possible, to aggravate it. But when he rose to make his statement it slowly became clear that he wasn't even limping. The unusual pallor of his face was not down to splattered albumen, he explained, but righteous indignation. The device in question had made quite a loud noise, he conceded, but he had not been hurt and, what's more, were he to walk that way again his foot would fall not an ounce less heavily. The charge had been a dummy.

Mr Straw seemed genuinely indignant to have been depicted as an enemy of freedom and quietly defended his actions. He had only acted, he said, out of concern for the Lawrence family (Pavlovian reflex of agreement from both sides), for the fair treatment of the police (concessionary grunts from law and order Tories) and respect for the privileges of the House (sturdy hear-hearing from Labour members and snorts of derision from the Conservative benches). I think he might sensibly have dispensed with this last point because even though Mr Straw himself strikes me as a by-the-rules kind of chap himself, he is smart enough to know that he belongs to a government which is about as leak-proof as a satsuma bag.

It also seemed unwise of him to harp quite so much on the care and effort he had put into keeping the report secret, since the more he protected his department's integrity the more he exposed its basic competence. Following this line several Tory MPs tried to get him to say just how many people had access to copies of the leaked report, and whether they would be sacked if they were found out, but at these points Mr Straw briefly forgot the all-important supremacy of Parliament and declined to answer. One questioner even raised the possibility that a junior minister might have been involved in this heinous breach of trust, at which point the junior ministers grinned ostentatiously to register the absurdity of the notion. I noticed that Paul Boateng smiled with particular vigour, as if the idea struck him as the very acme of hilarity.

Mr Straw was rattled enough, anyway, to get unparliamentary with Sir Norman Fowler, earning a rebuke from the Speaker, delayed only by the fact that she hadn't heard the offending remark and had to get him to repeat it before she could pass judgement. For his part Sir Norman seemed to have pulled off that entertaining trick whereby a synthetic and strategic indignation slowly converts itself into the real thing. He began by pretending to be very cross and did such a good job that he ended up genuinely so. Mr Straw, I think, travelled in the opposite direction, realising by the end of the session that his protestations that he was completely unmarked might actually turn out to be true.