Parliament & Politics: `Groundhog Day' meets `Nightmare at Westminster'

The Sketch
OVER THE past few days Parliament has come to seem like an unusually stupefying remake of Groundhog Day, the amiable Hollywood comedy in which Bill Murray finds himself trapped in a temporal loop in a small American town.

You may recall that in the film Murray wakes up each day and finds that he is doomed to repeat the same actions and exchange the same banal dialogue with the town's inhabitants, whom he despises as hicks. They too are fixed in a single groove of the record of their lives, the needle rotating endlessly without ever moving on.

In Pre-Budget Statement Day the Murray role is taken by Gordon Brown, who has now found himself in the House on four successive afternoons, repeating the same identical phrases - "boom and bust" and "steering a course for stability" being the particular favourites.

Every day he has reminded the opposition of their economic record, every day he has waved the same statistic about interest rates in their faces, apparently oblivious to the fact he told them yesterday and the day before that. The point of Groundhog Day was that the Murray character knew he was trapped, while everyone else didn't - but in the remake, yesterday exists for nobody.

The opposition are playing their part, too, with Francis Maude inseparable from his alliterative cat-call of "fantasy forecasting", first unveiled on Monday and subsequently given a daily excursion to the despatch box.

As in the original film, there are tiny variations from day to day; the announcement of a drop in interest rates yesterday meant that Mr Brown was able to look a little more ebullient as he listened to the angry denunciations from the other side - here was a man who had unexpectedly been allowed to write his initials on his porridge with Golden Syrup. He knew that today, at least, the opposition couldn't demand when they might be coming down. The Chancellor had also turned up a fresh embarrassment for his opposite number, reminding the House, after a Eurosceptic intervention, that the autograph on the offending section of the Maastricht treaty had belonged to one Francis Maude. Mr Maude looked deeply unhappy at this revelation, like an adulterer who has just been shown a damning entry in a hotel register by his wife's divorce lawyer.

But unlike the original film, these meagre variations effect no larger alteration in the plot, they simply emphasise the grinding circularity of every other exchange. Even the accidental details are beginning to repeat themselves. On Wednesday, Rhodri Morgan's mobile phone bleeped out from the back row of the Labour benches, prompting one junior minister to quip that his campaign to be elected First Minister in Wales was already underway.

Yesterday, at almost the same hour of the day and from almost exactly the same position, Hilton Dawson's jacket suddenly chirruped loudly, prompting a sheepish flurry for the off button. At such moments the sense of deja vu hardens into utter conviction - we have been here before.

The mood of temporal dislocation isn't helped by the fact that the chamber is a place in which time has all the rigidity of a Slinky spring - occasionally tightly compacted but more often stretched out so far that it seems unlikely that it will ever be able to recoil again.

The most impressive longueuryesterday was during a question by Sir Peter Tapsell, a meandering interrogation which seemed at one point as if it might totter on until close of business. Sir Peter proceeded towards his point like a sedated lab-rat negotiating an unfamiliar maze. When, after many false turns, he finally made it, a Labour voice mockingly shouted out: "Would you repeat that?" He will, and so will everyone else.