Parliament Sketch: After the replay, lords arrange Pinochet's away match

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The Independent Online
"ESPANA POR FAVOR" chanted a crowd of demonstrators in Parliament Square yesterday, cheerfully putting their case that Senator Augusto Pinochet should be allowed to take his complimentary trip to the Costa del Sol.

Inside the law lords were due to give their judgment for the second time, and many people were hoping for a repeat of the penalty shoot-out cliffhanger the previous fixture had delivered.

In the Lords, the visitors' galleries creaked under the weight of lucky ticket-holders, several of them clutching Human Rights Watch's useful team list, a fill-in-as-you-go scorecard, adorned with pictures of their lordships and boxes in which to note which way each judgment went.

For the first two announcements it seemed as if it might actually be useful for keeping tally, with Lord Goff levelling the score after an initial vote for extradition from Lord Browne-Wilkinson. After that, though, it was all downhill for the general. The point of no return passed without an audible mark and the first sound that moved the chamber was the laughter that greeted Lord Browne-Wilkinson's remark that the judgments were "incapable of being understood without some explanation". After glancing through the written opinions, with their talk of "immunity rationae materiae", "the refoulement of persons" and the principle of "aut dedere aut punire", Lord Browne-Wilkinson's crisp paraphrase was gratefully taken up.

We could have done with him half an hour later, to offer a simultaneous translation of the Deputy Prime Minister's answers as he stood in for his boss at Prime Minister's questions. Impromptu sentence construction is not one of Mr Prescott's strong points and his frail syntactical powers appear to be further sapped when he finds himself addressed as Prime Minister. The result is not boring, it has to be said, with some replies offering the vision of a strange parallel universe, similar to our own but subtly different in its details. After a hostile Labour question about military action against Serbia, for example, Mr Prescott was at pains to underline allied determination. "Unato is united," he said resolutely, accidentally inventing what sounded to be a useful hybrid of international talking shop and mutual defence pact

A little later, after Peter Lilley had asked for an assurance that the murderer of Stephen Restorick would not be released early unless IRA weapons had been decommissioned, Mr Prescott stumbled again. "The freeing and exchange of prisoners" would continue, he said. Tories barked in synthetic confusion. Was there some PoW camp deep in bandit-country that they had not been told about? Mr Prescott looked testy. "I withdraw that remark. I apologise. I made a slip," he said, in a voice like fingernails raking down a blackboard.

The truth is, though, that Mr Prescott offers more slips than a lingerie department - sometimes eliding whole words ("everybody in the House feels exactly about that," he said, after a denunciation of child abuse), sometimes mispronouncing one so that the sentence twists surreally in his mouth: "The average level of the Tax Asian has gone down," he said, in a reply about council tax levels.

He was rescued only by the dogged solidarity of his Labour colleagues. The inevitable gibe about diving had come from Peter Lilley but Mr Prescott was prepared for it. "When I dived 80 feet," he said, "I didn't dive low enough to discover the low Tory poll rating!" This quip had surfaced so fast that it got the bends and hit the deck writhing. But the entire Parliamentary Labour Party turned out to give it mouth-to-mouth, roaring as if it was the very epitome of repartee. Mr Prescott was so cheered up he got through a whole sentence without a fluff.