Parliament: The Sketch: Flickering Redwood soon overcome by futility of it all

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The Independent Online
FOR SOME reason the words "fossil fuel" often drift across my mind as I stare down into the chamber of the House of Commons - and not just on days when energy generation is under discussion.

There is something distinctly archaic about some of the forms of combustion that take place here, whether it's the Conservative front bench's impression of an untended peat fire - a smouldering sprawl with a nostalgic fragrance of former days - or Labour's tidy little anthracite blaze, efficient and purposeful but somehow lacking in romance.

Here and there, of course, there are signs of alternative energy sources. I've written before about John Bercow's unusually strenuous questioning technique, recently adopted by the Canadian Air Force as an improvement on their famous warm-up routine.

What I didn't record was the way the Conservative MP makes even the question itself into a calorie-consuming activity. He talks as if he is simultaneously turning a hand-cranked generator, timing each word to one circuit of the handle: "This! Is! The! Worst! Crisis! For! Sixty! Years!" he pumped out yesterday, assaulting Stephen Byers, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, on some uncertainty over milk marketing.

If he had hoped to send a jolt of electricity through the minister, he had reckoned without Mr Byers' New Labour insulation. The minister rose, glowed with all the incandescent power of a searchlight attached to a hearing-aid battery, and then lapsed back into stand-by mode.

This ability to absorb opposition energy can be enervating it seems - Tory MP John Redwood, for example, appears to have given up entirely. There was a time when the faintest flicker of movement from the Opposition bench would bring Mr Redwood into attack posture, hood extended, body weaving from side to side as he mesmerised his prey with those glittering, lidless eyes. But these days you virtually have to prod him with a sharp stick to get him to emerge from his hole, and when he does the strikes are only half-hearted affairs.

Far be it for me to criticise any one for becoming sluggish in the presence of Mr Byers, a man in whom bureaucratic competence has reached narcotic concentrations, but this just doesn't look right. Mr Redwood's first visible flicker of interest came almost 30 minutes into the session, after someone had used the words "macro-economic stability".

He caught the speaker's eye like a discreet bidder at a fine art auction, but the moment passed and he stayed seated. Only after he'd been shown the way by a Liberal Democrat speaker - ranting in high style about economic meltdown - did he finally rise to his feet. For around 10 seconds you could see the John Redwood of old, but then something - a sense of futility or low body temperature - overpowered him and he subsided.

Labour was a bit depleted too. Ian McCartney, although easily the most compact of the government insult generators, can usually be relied on to tilt the voltmeter wellbeyond the red line. When he really gets going he reminds you of the nuclear power unit out of a submarine - almost perfectly spherical and imbued with an air of potentially explosive menace. But yesterday the effects of a recent illness were in evidence. "It is completely untrue," he said, "that I am the first DTI minister to have been bitten by the Millennium bug and survived", but something had taken the edge off his output. Even so he had enough spark to poke Mr Redwood into his second intervention - by taunting the Tories as "that party of Scrooges opposite".

Mr Redwood lunged at the one patch of bare skin he could see - the fact that Labour has its own fat-cat in the shape of Gavyn Davies, beneficiary of a recent Goldman-Sachs windfall. "Fortunately Mr Davies doesn't qualify for the minimum wage," replied Mr McCartney.

We've got eight months before we award the trophy for Parliamentary Understatement of the Year, but I think Mr McCartney can start clearing space on his mantelpiece.