Diary: MPs are silenced by a masterpiece of mandarin-speak

To be a successful Whitehall mandarin you need to learn never to lose your cool or rise to provocation, and to make your point without exaggerating. Sir Jeremy Heywood, who has reached the very pinnacle of the civil service, as Cabinet Secretary, exhibited these qualities to the full when questioned by MPs yesterday about Steve Hilton, the recently departed Downing Street adviser and friend of David Cameron, whose farewell gesture was to suggest that 90 per cent of civil servants should be sacked. "The way Steve operates is to challenge, he is a very challenging person," said Sir Jeremy, in classic mandarin speak.

Know your Borrelia from Babesiosis?

The main argument against reforming the House of Lords is that there are people in it who would be unlikely to get elected but bring a specialised knowledge that the average politician lacks. The truth of this was brought home by a question printed in yesterday's edition of Hansard from the Countess of Mar, who is in Parliament because she is the elder heir proportionate of her father, the 30th Earl of Mar, who died in 1975. He inherited the title from his second cousin once removed, both being descendants of the sister of the 27th Earl – as you probably already knew. The Countess is a farmer. Who else would table a question asking: "What testing is carried out in addition to Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto and Borrelia afzelii for tick-borne diseases including Bartonellosis, Ehrlichiosis, Borrelia garinii, Babesiosis, Louping ill and Q-fever, and for other zoonoses such as tick-borne encephalitis, Boutonneuse fever, Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever..."? The minister's answer was quite long, but can be summarised as "it depends".

Mensch lost in the land of Midnight

But there are also MPs with specialisms, such as the Tory Louise Mensch, who boasted on Twitter yesterday: "I am an expert at the 'Defence of Xajorkith'. I have won every possible way, Lake Mirrow, Farflame, and military. Once I so weakened them that an attack from Fawkrin the Skullkrin took their Citadel." No, I don't know what she was on about either, but some fellow in Sussex does, because he tweeted: "A Tory MP roaming the land of Midnight taking on Doomdarks foul host? Whatever next!??" If any regular readers can shed any light on this conundrum, do get in touch.

Can Respect repeat win in Manchester?

When George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election, most commentators saw it as an example of a rule that in politics a somebody will usually beat a nobody. Another possibility, though, is that the upset was a straightforward case of the policies of his party, Respect – which include immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and abolition of all tuition fees – having more appeal than Labour's. We shall see.

There is a by-election coming up in Manchester Central, where Labour's Lucy Powell, who works for Ed Miliband, is being challenged by Clive Searle, a founder of the Manchester branch of Respect. If it's true that policies rather than personalities determined the Bradford outcome, Manchester's result could be another Labour upset. Personally, I doubt it – but I didn't expect Galloway to win in Bradford either.

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