Parliament: Plan for levy on political phrases to reduce sentence congestion

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
LANGUAGE IS a medium through which the Deputy Prime Minister moves with some difficulty - watching him give a speech is like watching a cat trying to swim a length at the municipal baths. He's not there because he wants to be and what preoccupies him, to the exclusion of everything else, is the desire to get to the other end as quickly as possible. It's a frantic affair, with a great deal of splashing and no consistent sense of style.

John Redwood, on the other hand, is an otter of public speaking - sinuous, sleek and rapid. This is most definitely where he wants to be, riding the currents of insinuation and irony. It's common to see him turning to the backbenchers behind him after a particularly graceful arabesque, as if he wants to see a reflection of his agility in their eyes. John Prescott almost never does this - he might never make it back to the surface if he did.

And yet, oddly, Mr Prescott gets along just as fast as Mr Redwood - even quicker at times. Based on their comparative ease in the water, the first full day of debate on the Queen's Speech should have been a foregone conclusion; Mr Redwood should have cruised it. In fact, it ended up as an honourable draw, with Mr Prescott even displaying some flashes of style. When he was interrupted as he repeated the promise to repeal Section 28, which bans the "promotion" of a homosexual lifestyle, he reacted with what can only be described as panache - not a word that often finds itself in his company.

To know exactly what Mr Prescott is on about is not always easy. When he refers to "unscropulous freeholders", "unaminous support" and "stasistics", it is relatively easy to reconstruct the original. Even his indifference to conjunctions is survivable: "we are talking in this Bill as hypothecation" he said at one point, substituting "as" for "of". (His speechwriters had attempted a cunning double-bluff elsewhere, writing in an ungrammatical phrase about counting "every person of having equal worth". Presumably they were gambling that if they wrote it wrong Mr Prescott might read it right.) Some phrases, though, defy translation. "It is the issue of our preferred consideration," Mr Prescott said about the part-privatisation of the air traffic control system.

You'd need an air accident investigation team to piece back that heap of verbal wreckage into identifiable shape, but all this doesn't really matter. Mr Prescott's virtue - and occasional vice - is that he is transparent. When he feels something, as he did when prodded over Clause 28, his listeners genuinely feel it too - good or bad. When he's cross, as he was on Wednesday when being expertly teased by William Hague, it's as plain as the scowl on his face.

But with Mr Redwood, it's hard not to feel that sincerity sometimes takes second place to style. The veneer is impressive - few politicians are quite as nimble in turning contradiction to their own ends - but it isn't always exactly clear what it covers. Does he really feel road-charging is an affront to decency? Or has he just decided that this is the best way to get at Mondeo-man, the fabled foundation of Labour's electoral success? Mr Prescott was edgy enough about the issue yesterday to change his script intentionally - a sentence about how "the only way forward was to consider congestion charging" came out rather differently, the Deputy Prime Minister having decided that "to improve public transport" would be a more politic intention. He needs to worry about how he can deliver this, but he should stop fretting about his delivery in the purely rhetorical sense. If he added some gold ribbon to that chip on his shoulder, treating his foible with pride, everybody would take it for an epaulette.