Parliament: The Sketch: Blair's precedent for governance by daytime television

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The Independent Online
NOW THAT Tony Blair has established a precedent for governance by daytime television, with his appearance on This Morning we should presumably brace ourselves for an extension of the principle.

The Royal Commission's report on reform of the House of Lords could be presented as a Style Challenge makeover show, that fusty and under- used Upper Chamber transformed, with the help of glass bricks and several tons of MDF, into a bright and airy family room.

In Can't Fight, Won't Fight Robin Cook could show Mr Milosevic and the KLA how to put together a palatable peace settlement in 30 minutes, whipping up the studio audience with his catchphrase: "The planes stand ready on 48-hour notice".

And there are obvious television models for the adversarial business of the House itself, daytime programmes in which a strong female authority- figure moderates between surly antagonists, refereeing their emotional fire fights and deciding when to take interventions from the floor. Give Madam Speaker a radio-mike, allow her to roam dynamically between the front benches and we could have Betty as a rival to Vanessa and Trisha.

It's only fair to say, though, that if yesterday had been the pilot the series would never have been made. The producers couldn't be blamed for the casting. On one side there was Frank Dobson, a no-nonsense type who's happy to mix it up when the occasion demands. On the other there was Ann Widdecombe, a feisty dame who usually hurls herself at Labour skittles like a bowling bowl that has discovered a passionate sense of vocation. On paper the chemistry was perfect - if we were very lucky we might even get a fist fight - but for some reason it just wouldn't ignite.

Ms Widdecombe, for one, could hardly be coaxed out of a muttering passivity - even when Virginia Bottomley opened up the most promising Opposition salient, the issue of National Health Service rationing, she sat there, steadfastly refusing to go over the top. Perhaps she had simply been demoralised by the broadly unassailable front the Health Secretary presented, given that he'd just announced large pay rises for nurses. Ms Widdecombe couldn't attack that and nor could she get a fingernail underneath the statement that followed, that NHS Direct, a telephone medical advice service designed to stop people calling an ambulance when they stub their toe, had been a great success and was to be expanded. Instead she left the dirty work to her lieutenant, Alan Duncan. He hoped that he would not shock the Health Secretary but it was his happy task "to give NHS Direct a general welcome". Mr Dobson did appear a little out of his depth - conceding that "it would be churlish not to welcome the general welcome", but he struggled back to the dry land of robust contempt.

The highlight of the afternoon was a more old-fashioned style of programming - one of those straight-to-camera monologues in which a distinguished old gentleman holds forth extempore without the benefit of autocue. Sir Edward Heath, speaking in the second day of the debate on Lords reform, held the House with a speech that wasn't fluent exactly - some pauses were rhetorical, some merely marked the anxious gap during which his argument sought its bearings. Across the floor Tony Benn nodded with approval as Sir Edward conceded that the days of heredity privilege were passed.

As daytime television it was low on thrills, but as a parliamentary occasion I'd happily watch a repeat.

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