Parliament - The Sketch: Members are all talk when it comes to the big question

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The Independent Online
THE HOUSE of Commons can be a depressingly decorous place sometimes. This isn't the received opinion, of course, which tends to tut piously over the raucous breaches in courtesy which, all too rarely, demonstrate that someone has actually become agitated about a point of principle.

But when you really hope MPs will misbehave they almost invariably don't - and this is never truer than when word has gone round that an MP appears to have been caught misbehaving outside the House.

Yesterday, for example, many of the conversations in the corridors will have touched on the weekend's exciting revelation that a Labour MP had been found on the premises when the police raided a Thai massage parlour.

Certainly journalists were talking about it and while I don't wish to libel elected representatives, than whom no higher-minded body of people exist, I think it is fair to say that the odd member might have mentioned it - plus most of the even ones as well.

For journalists facing the prospect of Jack Straw answering questions about the public information campaign on the voting system for the European elections, this naturally offered a distant shimmer of hope. Crawling across the burning sands of employment statistics for West Mercia police force for the year 1998 to 1999, we were heartened by the sight of palm trees far away on the horizon.

If we could just make it to Question 11, an inquiry from Jenny Jones about what plans Mr Straw had to review the law on kerb crawling, surely the innuendo-drought would break.

Someone would make a sly joke and we could plunge gratefully into the mud-hole, cackling hysterically as we slaked our thirsts. Not a bit of it. The question could hardly have been more pertinent, really.

Ms jones wished to raise the anomalies in the existing laws on prostitution, which apparently make kerb-crawling an offence though not yet an arrestable one. She was also concerned to shift the full weight of the law off prostitutes' shoulders and onto those of their male exploiters, both pimp and client.

This was the right moment to do it but even so she may have regretted that the ballot had put her question so far up the order paper.

Paul Boateng took a different tack, halting his vehicle and decorating the outside with outraged banners: the Government would be considering how best to deal with "those who ply this evil trade," he said. The sentiments were unimpeachable and the Victorian high style rather pertinent, since he was talking about child prostitution, but Mr Boateng's moral indignation is too opportunistic to be entirely convincing anymore. Tyres squealing, he too headed off for a more respectable neighbourhood. Tory MPs, perhaps aware that once mud starts getting thrown there's no knowing who might get splashed, sat uncharacteristically silent.

There was still a faint hope of executive relief - as luck would have it the MP for Northampton North, Sally Keeble, also had a question on the order paper. She wanted to know what steps Mr Straw was taking to reduce crime in shopping centres, to which one obvious answer might be that her local police force could spend less time in local massage parlours and more time patrolling the streets. There was a rather sarcastic "hear, hear" from Nicholas Soames when Mr Boateng finished his scrupulously bland response, but not a hint otherwise that most members were trying to keep a straight face.

They had all opted for what you might call the Fawlty gambit - whatever you do, don't mention the whore.