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.

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