Parliament: The Sketch: Redwood hotly denies holding talks with bathroom sponge

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The Independent Online
WHAT GENIUS of melodrama arranged for the announcement of the law lords' ruling on General Pinochet's appeal? Surely serendipity alone could not have marshalled the occasion so perfectly, first of all ensuring the verdict would arrive on the old villain's birthday, then procuring the perfect sequence for the individual judgments to be read out. In dramatic terms the hearing has been rather like the kind of experimental theatre favoured by German directors of a sadistic bent - a celebration of enigma in which old atrocities mingled surreally with the picking of legal nits. In the early days, though, the subject matter alone guaranteed that it was something of a hot ticket, with various celebrity politicians turning up to listen, staying for just long enough to realise that they had not the faintest idea what any of it meant, and then departing for something a little more vaudeville. Kavanagh QC it wasn't. The main body of the audience, whether they were the claque of Pinochistas in cashmere and silk or the rather more coarsely fibrous group of protesters, were doggedly attentive, but even they couldn't pretend it was easy stuff to sit through.

The denouement couldn't have been more different. Imagine the scene: five sage and eminent lawyers must hand down the verdicts which will decide an old man's fate. Justice has covered her eyes, not out of impartiality but because she can hardly bear to look. Then the most senior law lord steps up to the penalty spot and takes his kick. It goes wide and so does the next. The crowd thrills and slumps according to its sympathies. They think it's all over. But then the next ball goes in. And the next. It's all down to the final shot and when that bellies the netting the place gives a collective gasp, unanimous only in its sense of unexpected reversal.

Celebration has turned instantly to grief, commiseration to congratulation. Hardly surprising that the Commons couldn't match it for drama, although it wasn't exactly a dull day in the House. It was Mr Mandelson's turn to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech and he began with an effective sting, attributing to Mr Redwood a disobliging remark about Mr Hague, to the effect that he had had "more interesting conversations with a bathroom sponge". Mr Redwood went puce and leapt to his feet to deny that any such words had ever passed his lips. He held the right honourable sponge in the highest regard. He went even pucer when reminded of his view that the Conservatives had considered all the leadership candidates and elected the worst. Never said it, protested Mr Redwood, but his denial had the sort of hot-faced fluster that confirms suspicions rather than dispels them. "What a way to speak of your leader," continued Mr Mandelson, "We wouldn't get away with it in our party. The men in the dark would never allow it."

It didn't all go Mr Mandelson's way, though. John Bercow, the Tories' bouncing bomb, celebrated his naming as Backbencher of the Year by repeatedly leaping to his feet to ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to give way. Mr Mandelson declined. This wasn't a good idea. Mr Bercow relishes a challenge and began to ask at ever- decreasing intervals, occasionally letting his frustrated zeal issue as little yelps of condemnation. "You're useless!" he shouted, "You're frit!"

Mr Mandelson punished him by taking interventions from everybody else with increasingly sarcastic courtesy. Had David Blunkett's dog been in the chamber she would have stood a better chance of getting Mr Mandelson to sit down, but Mr Bercow didn't give up. It took him far too long, but Mr Mandelson finally realised that if you have a thorn in your heel it is usually best to put your feet up for a while and let it work itself out.