Parliament & Politics: Mind-altering questions fuel heady whiff of defeat

The Sketch
A FEW moments before the Prime Minister arrived in the Commons, Gisela Stuart had asked a question about ecstasy and its potentially damaging effects on the brain, but then Tony Blair was at the despatch box and MPs were mainlining on their own drug of choice: a potent stimulant with a wide range of mood-altering effects. PMQ, or Prime Minister's Questions, is one of those hallucinogens which take their cue from the base mood of the user, which means it has to be handled with care as a recreational drug. Yesterday, for example, the Conservative benches had arrived already half-stoned after inhaling the fumes of government defeat drifting down the corridors from the House of Lords. This was a vicarious trip, a kind of passive toking in which they breathed in as deeply as they could, relishing that heady and nostalgic odour. And since it's been a long time since their last hit, they became giddy anyway, even though the smoke was second- hand.

WHEN THEY added a dose of PMQ, almost always an "upper" for the Tories, the effects were startling. It was the noisiest session Mr Blair has had to face for a long time, so raucous and gleefully indignant that the Speaker had to threaten the more intoxicated Tory members with naming and shaming. William Hague can handle his narcotics considerably better than most of his backbenchers, but even he was seeing things, apparently convinced that the Prime Minister was flanked by oriental magi. "Perhaps those ancient Chinese mystics he keeps turning to could teach him the art of answering questions," he said mockingly, after Mr Blair had ignored a pointed inquiry about Labour backbench enthusiasm for the closed list system. John Prescott looked magnificently inscrutable at this point. Labour backbenchers, who had arrived mildly down in the mouth, are much less adept at concealing their feelings. Instead of cheering them up, PMQ had rendered them faintly glazed, with many wearing the kind of fixed smile adopted when open glumness is socially unacceptable.

THIS WASN'T really Mr Blair's fault, though he had little better to offer them than a passionate repetition. The Prime Minister hadn't waited for the issue to come to him, but had primed Valerie Davey, first up on the order paper, to ask a question about the unconscionable interference of an "anachronistic and hereditary" institution. But Mr Hague was happy to begin right away too, using up all his six allotted questions in one go, as he pressed home a cheerful defence of the indefensible. Why was it, he asked Mr Blair, that so many cross-benchers, law lords and bishops had voted against the Government? He pulled out the bishops as a moral trump card. Even God was against the closed-list system, it seemed. But Mr Blair had friends in high places too; "We had the support of the Liberal Democrats," he replied, at which the Opposition benches collapsed in an exhibition of hilarity so unrestrained that it looked as if it might be life-threatening. Mr Blair was ready for this: "I prefer the support of people who are elected," he shouted back. The members opposite were further cheered when Mr Hague reminded the Prime Minister of his own glowing commendation for the Lords, after their defeat of a piece of Conservative legislation before the last election. "No whining about an affront to democracy then," he said triumphantly. Mr Blair wisely retreated into self-deprecation: if the Opposition insisted on killing the Bill, he pointed out, they would not only save several Labour seats but they would even have "succeeded in making me loved by the Labour Party". I understand that delusions of universal amity are one of the pleasanter effects of ecstasy but it seems there are times when PMQ can induce it too.

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