Parliament: The Sketch - Today's lesson is in silly behaviour and bad grammar

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The Independent Online
HALFWAY THROUGH education questions, Nicholas Winterton confessed that he had recently been visiting pre-school facilities in his Macclesfield constituency, including Jolly Tots (sarcastic hear-hears) and St Paul's pre-school in Poynton. What happens to a child at the age of two or three, Mr Winterton told us, can have a striking effect on how they turn out when they are 16.

This prompted an anxious thought in me: should impressionable infants really be exposed to Mr Winterton? Have any studies been conducted to determine the long-term effects of such exposure?

The general prejudice, though, seems to be that coming into contact with MPs is an educational and improving experience. For the first half-hour of the session, for example, the public gallery was principally occupied by a large party of bemused schoolchildren, brought here to examine the machinery of democracy in action. Yesterday this consisted of Mr Blunkett being sarcastic about the Conservatives and the Conservatives being dutifully indignant back (they're still a little too fragile to make sarcasm a ready option).

Mr Blunkett himself was in ebullient mood, even teasing one of his own colleagues after Charles Clarke had solemnly announced that he would be making a personal inspection of a school in Andrew Dinsmore's constituency. "What a man!" said Mr Blunkett loudly. "What a man indeed," said Mr Clarke, slightly flustered to find that he was being heckled from two feet behind him.

Later, after a standard bit of party political tub-thumping from Andrew Smith, Mr Blunkett became even more excited, bouncing up and down in his seat and giving Mr Smith an approving thump of such heft that it was audible in the press gallery. The children had disappeared by then, but one can only hope that they weren't paying too much attention when they were present; otherwise they might have gone away believing, as George Mudie appears to, that "unequivocable" is a real word, or sharing Peter Pike's view that the phrase "extremely lower" offers an acceptable grammatical role model.

Along the corridor in Committee Room 15, Clare Short was giving evidence to the Select Committee on International Development, most of whom had arrived direct from the airport after a tour of Macedonian refugee camps.

Air Macedonia's fabled in-flight service (three boiled sweets and as much potato brandy as you can drink) had obviously not done much to ease the effects of this unenviable parliamentary excursion - not so much a "jolly" as a "gloomy". They were in an anxious mood and they wanted the minister to know it.

Very few MPs can handle the intoxicating effects of committee membership, which allows them to indulge their Kavanagh QC fantasies at the expense of those who are more famous, more wealthy or more powerful than themselves. You wonder how those giving evidence keep their temper, particularly when a little learning has been added to the heady cocktail of cross-examination.

Rich in recently acquired expertise, several members set out to educate Ms Short, who has only been thinking about this matter for the past 35 days. "I would urge you to go away and look at it again," Tess Kingham said sternly at one point, like a teacher disappointed with a pupil's project book.

Ms Short did some urging back, reminding the committee that Macedonia had been making the same predictions of imminent social and economic collapse since the first day of the war. "That doesn't mean it's not true!" yelped one exasperated member, convinced that this time there really was a wolf. It all ended moderately cordially, but only, I suspect, because they'd started late and Ms Short had to leave early.