Parliament: The Sketch - Air traffic control plans run into severe turbulence

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMED as if it might end with a whimper not a bang. By the luck of the draw, the final session before MPs departed for the summer recess was Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Never a hot ticket, Scottish questions have fallen into an existential crisis since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. What is the Secretary of State for Scotland for, exactly? And where precisely does what he is for give way to what the First Minister is for?

At the moment, John Reid's sole task appears to be answering questions about the legitimacy of his own position, and while he is pretty good at this, one can't help feeling that his talents have been trapped in some constitutional eddy, whirled around in a dirty spume of jurisdictional anomalies. The soundbite yesterday was "a partnership of parliaments", repeated several times but with slowly diminishing force, like the weakening attempts of a swimmer to break free from the grip of a powerful current.

Still, on form, Mr Reid is as good as anybody at the dispatch box, knocking bodyline balls over the boundary with rare style. He gave a good example yesterday, responding to a Scottish Nationalist MP who had been unwise enough to risk a military metaphor: what was he doing "amassing an army of up to 130 civil servants", he was asked.

Mr Reid, who has served time as the minister for armed forces, gave the House a quick instruction in military hierarchy; he didn't have an army, he explained, nor a brigade, nor a battalion, nor even a regiment. The best he could muster was company strength. I suppose this means that Mr Reid is still a relatively junior officer - if so, it is time he was considered for higher command.

Helen Liddell didn't fare nearly so well. The Government had hoped to fly in low with its new plans for the partial privatisation of air traffic control, bringing the contraband in under the radar of the Opposition. But she had been spotted and ordered to divert through parliamentary airspace, where she encountered some very nasty turbulence indeed.

Called to the dispatch box to answer a Private Notice Question, Ms Liddell wrestled to maintain control of her aircraft, buffeted by gale force ridicule from the opposition benches and an icy downdraft from the benches behind her. She talked of opportunities and radical plans, of safety being paramount and the future being limitless. The Government would be "extending Nats' operational excellence worldwide", she promised, and the new arrangements would include a "stakeholder council". At this point a particularly ferocious gust of hilarity from the Tory benches almost flipped her frail craft on its back. She stared out into the enfolding gloom, desperately seeking some friendly light by which she could get her bearings. But the horizon was gone.

Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative spokesman, mockingly reminded the House of a barn- storming performance by Andrew Smith, in which the then transport spokesman promised a rapturous Labour conference that "our air is not for sale". If it had been "crazy" then, why did it make sense now?

And then, one after another, Labour MPs stood up to express their indignation.

Even the most dependable MPs, the failsafe back-up systems for the Labour majority, began to splutter alarmingly. Ministerial pilots expect Tony Benn's warning lights to go off at least once every flight, but when Laura Moffatt starts flashing red, it's clearly time to look for the nearest open field.

By now Ms Liddell was suffering from disorientation vertigo and Ms Boothroyd took pity on her, calling a halt to proceedings. Robbed of the death-spiral they anticipated, Tories howled - but will leave for the beaches with a song in their heart.

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