The Sketch: Dignified silence won't do if you can state the obvious

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the things that the House of Commons exists for is to provide a venue for statements of the obvious. It wouldn't have been very difficult to predict, for instance, that the Conservative Party, as a body, might deplore the murder of Jill Dando but, just in case there are voters out there who are in doubt about where they might stand on this matter, Sir Norman Fowler went on the record at the beginning of questions to the Home Secretary. Jack Straw, anxious not to be left behind, leapt up to confirm that Labour would obviously like to associate themselves with Sir Norman's sentiments. MPs on both sides of the house then murmured to indicate that they too could be counted among those who were against the gratuitous killing of popular television personalities. There is nothing very disreputable about this - it is simply an institutional expression of the human instinct to say: "Have you heard? Isn't it dreadful!"But there is a whisper of political calculation too. Dignified silence isn't really an option, given that it can so easily be interpreted as indifference or, even worse, a lack of awareness of what everybody else is talking about. So when Mr Straw later delivered a statement on the recent bombings in Brixton and Brick Lane it was not because he had anything very surprising to say (these were "mindless crimes", the police are pursuing the perpetrators with "utmost vigour", the Government will not tolerate racism), but because not to have said anything would have looked oddly taciturn.

In between these two ceremonies of public utterance Tony Blair offered his own variation on the theme of ritual pronouncement, with a statement on the recent Nato summit. Mr Blair looked rather tired yesterday, his usual fluency at the dispatch box replaced by something more hesitant. He frequently paused as he searched his next word for hidden weapons before allowing it to pass. In his case this was because there was a risk he might say something substantive and he had to make sure he didn't - accidentally committing himself to some undesirable or unagreed course of action. The Tories have cannily begun to exploit this circumspection on the part of the Prime Minister, with William Hague adopting the line first taken by Michael Howard. This is to express support for Nato's operations but also respectfully todemand clarity on certain issues, in the reasonably secure knowledge that they won't get it and thus be forced to express a binding opinion that they will have to stand by. If all goes well in the war they will be able to say that they loyally supported it all along. If things turn rancid they can point to their astute and far-sighted questions, asked but fatally never answered.

Chart-topper among those put yesterday was one about whether Russian ships would be intercepted as part of the proposed oil embargo and what would happen if they declined to pull over to the marine equivalent of the hard shoulder. Mr Blair doesn't have a good answer to this question, which is one of the reasons he had returned from Washington without a clear agreement from his Nato allies. Instead, he explained, someone has been "tasked" to look into the matter and would be reporting back soon - presumably when everyone's attention has moved elsewhere. In the meantime MPs indulged themselves by asking it again and again - either because they enjoyed the apocalyptic frisson it delivers or because they liked embarrassing Mr Blair. Its final appearance was from Alice Mahon, who delivered it in tones that suggested she alone had spotted a crucial difficulty. Mr Blair let his exasperation show - stating the obvious may be a Parliamentary privilege but even here there are limits to the number of times you can do it.