Parliament: The Sketch: Naked at the dispatch box - and it wasn't a dream

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The Independent Online
MOST OF us have had that nightmare in which you find yourself about to go on stage and realise that you don't have a clue what your lines are. But most of us are lucky enough to wake up to the flooding relief that it was all just a ghastly dream.

Not poor Mr Prescott, who yesterday had the kind of experience that causes you to wake up next morning with a scalding jolt of anguish as you remember that it really did happen, and, what's more, that many painful mornings lie ahead before the sting of humiliation will have entirely faded.

The prospect of the Deputy Prime Minister answering questions on the Kosovo crisis would have aroused some anticipation in any case - the last time he had to make a statement on this matter, President Milosevic's name proved to be an insurmountable barricade, withstanding repeated brave assaults from the combined forces of Mr Prescott's lips, tongue and soft palate. This had apparently left him so skittish about a repeat engagement that Department of Transport civil servants had been working late into the night to find plausible (and pronounceable) synonyms for the Beast of Belgrade. More serious was the question of how Nato policy would emerge from the tumble-dryer of Mr Prescott's language processor. Mr Blair has been precisely vague about such issues as ground intervention and a post-war settlement, taking advantage of light cloud cover to shelter these vulnerable positions from the laser-guided questions of sceptics. The best Mr Prescott ever achieves is a vague precision - and there was some question as to whether the combination of these two approaches would lead to inadvertent candour or a kind of bafflement meltdown.

In the event, it wasn't the war that tripped him up. If anyone was discredited by the exchanges on Kosovo it was Labour backbenchers, in a mood of unthinking jingoism as Tories put several pertinent questions about the war. "Disgraceful!" shouted Peter Mandelson, leading a raucous claque of MPs who appeared to think that any inquiry, however sensible, constituted an act of treason. But, apart from one incident when he deployed the human shield of "our soldiers in the field", Mr Prescott handled himself perfectly well.

He survived a rough patch over class sizes too, after he had flagrantly substituted his own easy question for Alan Beith's more awkward one. As Tory MPs barracked him for this evasion, he grinned cheekily: "That's the answer he's going to get anyway."

As in any good disaster movie, the air of insouciance was the cue for catastrophe. The House was still chuckling affectionately as Michael Spicer stood up to unroll a lengthy question, which he finally revealed was about "Withholding Tax". There was a pause and something about it - an infinitesimal beat or two extra before Mr Prescott rose, or the look of scrabbling urgency in his eyes - carried the scent of blood to the Tory benches. He couldn't remember what it was. Had he had two seconds more he would probably have put a face to the name, but he didn't and the shutters of his memory came slamming down. I doubt if Mr Prescott could have remembered his wife's name at this point, stupefied as he was by his situation - naked at the dispatch box with only a string vest to protect his modesty. He stumbled through his reply, every word hammering home his plight, every word increasing theglee of his tormentors opposite.

So flustered was he that a few minutes later he was apologising for something he hadn't even done, convinced by the continuing hubbub of celebration from the Tory benches that he had replied to the wrong question on the order paper. He hadn't, but it hardly mattered anymore. Nothing was going to rescue him from this bad dream.