Parliament: Words are elastic on the Westminster side of the looking glass

The Sketch

"THERE IS an Alice in Wonderland dimension to these proceedings sometimes" said Peter Brooke, raising a point of order as MPs ebbed away from Prime Minister's Question Time. I think he probably meant Alice Through the Looking Glass, since what he had in mind was the often surreal disjunction in the House between what is said and what is actually the case - and there can be no better description of the politician's approach to veracity than Humpty Dumpty's famous remark in that work - "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean". Politicians never actually tell lies, you see, their vocabularies are simply more elastic than those of ordinary folk. Occasionally they stretch a word too far and there's a painful twang as the elastic snaps back in their faces, but mostly they get away with it.

Mr Blair gave a fine demonstration of the principle yesterday. Most people would assume, for example, that the phrase "we got the beef ban lifted" implied something by putting both verbs in the past tense. Tory MPs clearly took this rather pedestrian view and gasped at the audacity of the Prime Minister in placing the phrase in such close proximity to an acknowledgement of the French government's continuing ban on British beef. They didn't appear to understand that "lifted" could enclose within it the secondary meaning "not lifted at all".

Similarly, when Mr Blair accused the Liberal Democrats of having "opposed" the New Deal and encountered a howl of injured innocence, a Prime Ministerial translation had to be offered. "Put it like this", he said wearily, as if dealing with a singularly pedantic bit of hair-splitting, "they opposed the way we raised the money for it". Asked a Eurosceptic question about Lord Levene of Portsoken's suggestion that the City was doing rather well outside the euro-zone, Mr Blair welcomed his "support for the Labour Government". "Support", "Failure to attack" - surely any fair-minded person would recognise these as effectively synonymous?

Mr Hague did rather better at piercing the yielding fabric of Mr Blair's statements yesterday than he has done for a while, making it quite clear at one point that the Prime Minister was out of his depth on tax plans for pensioners, and effectively mocking the Chancellor's furtive attempts to throw him a lifebelt. Mr Hague went further, talking darkly of the "standards of truthfulness and honesty" of the Government. But the great advantage of elastic rhetoric is that it helps you bounce back so quickly. If the session had begun with Alice, it ended with Aladdin - the Prime Minister recovering from his brief fluster to lead his party in a jolly call and response session. He genuinely hadn't known what he was talking about when he answered Mr Hague on married couples' allowance, but later on he pretended to be ignorant, reading out some recent remarks by John Redwood and asking for clarification as to whether they represented official Conservative policy. The Honourable Member for Wokingham had said that Labour's "big mistake" was to call for increased public spending. "Was it?" shouted Mr Blair, his face a mask of bafflement.

He wasn't finished with his questions either. The party opposite hadn't made it clear yet which particular Labour spending programmes they opposed. "Do they oppose child benefit?" he asked. "Yes!" roared Labour MPs, as strenuously as a coach party of seven-year-olds who have just been asked whether they believe in fairies. "Do they oppose the working family tax credit?" Mr Blair continued. "Yes!!" yelled the matinee crowd. "Do they oppose the New Deal" Mr Blair bellowed over the excited hubbub. "Yes!!!" they shouted, deafening this time since the slow-starters had finally woken up to what was expected of them. Mrs Thatcher, the Widow Twankey of British politics, was fond of such controlled exercises in audience participation. She has found a worthy successor in Tinkerblair.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence