Parliament Sketch: Spasms and salivating on back benches as pagers go off

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
WHEN A mobile phone goes off on the Labour benches the result is usually a highly localised twitch from a single MP. Viewed from a distance it looks rather like that focused shudder that a horse's flank will give when trying to shake off an annoying fly.

But when the bleep of the official Labour Party pager sounds, as it did yesterday afternoon, the effect is dramatically different. The whole backbench rump flinches as one. It reminds you of those experiments in which an amputated frog's leg is given a quick jolt of electricity and jerks in a posthumous simulation of independent life. The mechanism isn't directly galvanic, of course; instead, the effect is brought about by a trained Pavlovian response - the bleeper sounds and loyal MPs find themselves salivating at the thought of advancement.

It wasn't the only reflex response to be seen yesterday - indeed, it depressingly highlighted just what a creature of instinct Parliament can be. There's the Waiting-List Twitch, for example, a familiar spasm during health questions. Under Ann Widdecombe the Tories have recently made an admirable attempt to bring this under control - or at least to argue that waiting-list figures are a pretty specious measure of success in the delivery of healthcare. But Ann Widdecombe was absent and though Alan Duncan tried to hold the line, questioning Frank Dobson about the distortions and absurdities involved in fetishising this statistic, he couldn't suppress the hind- brain urge to denounce the Government for falsifying its claims - an implicit assertion that such figures do matter after all.

On the other side, Labour ministers, however lightly touched on this sensitive spot, still flail out with the same unthinking energy. "We'll take no lectures from the party opposite ..." begins a frontbench spokesman automatically.

Then there's Foreign and Commonwealth Palsy, a rarer condition but no less startling for that. The stimulus in this case is often some foreign atrocity involving British nationals. Yesterday, for example, the Foreign Secretary turned up to give the House a statement on the kidnappings on the Ugandan border, an abduction that ended in the death of several British tourists. Never mind that he didn't know very much yet, never mind that Michael Howard's questions were knowingly fired into a vacuum, something had to be done, even if the something was nothing. Mr Cook looked grave, offered condolences, washed his hands of whatever had happened. Our High Commissioner had made clear to the Ugandan Foreign Minister that "there should be no intervention which might put lives at risk". I hesitate to think what Robin Cook might say if the Ugandan High Commissioner tried to direct a security operation taking place in this country, but never mind the impertinence either, HMG was in the clear.

Amid this fiesta of spasms and jerks it is easy for healthy and useful reflexes to go undetected. When Tam Dalyell stands up during points of order to raise, yet again, the nature of our military operations in Iraq, you can almost hear a collective sigh of condescension in the chamber. There goes mad Tam again, the thought runs - quite incapable of controlling himself, poor chap. All he has to do is glance at a press report about renewed bombing and his muscles propel him upright. Best to look away. But Mr Dalyell is right to twitch - the Foreign Secretary, it seems, can find the time to address the House about the fate of four British tourists, a matter with no foreign- policy implications, but he cannot squeeze in a statement about an escalating military action against another country. Mr Dalyell's colleagues, so sensitive and responsive to other stimuli, display a paralysis on this matter and it is not to their, or Parliament's, credit.