The Sketch: Lukewarm atmosphere nurtures precious House plants

Click to follow
"ARE WE to take into account wind-chill factor?" asked Margaret Ewing, putting a technical question about Labour's policy on cold weather payments to Angela Eagle, backing up Alistair Darling for his first questions as Secretary of State for Social Security.

As the MP for Moray, Mrs Ewing presumably has to take a close interest in such barometric details, but the phrase can't avoid striking an odd note in the House of Commons, a location in which there is rarely a shortage of wind, but where it is almost never chilly.

Tepid is about as low as it goes, and even then it's unlikely to raise a goose-bump except on those of the most tender sensibilities. Hot is pretty rare too, it has to be said.

Yesterday, on the first day of a new parliamentary term, the temperature rarely rose above lukewarm despite a few gusty attempts by Opposition MPs to strike a spark off the presence of Frank Field, the former minister for social security and sitting just two rows behind Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State, who was widely reported to have been instrumental in Mr Field's reluctant decision to spend more time with his statistical tables.

Speaking in Glasgow last month Mr Darling declared that "where they can, individuals have a responsibility to make provision for themselves in retirement" and there were some on the Conservative side of the House who hoped Mr Field would do just that, setting himself up with a nice little line in freelance sniping from the back benches.

John Wilkinson was the first to try and draw fire, asking whether the Government's promises on pensioner provision would soon have "gone the way of the Honourable Member for Birkenhead". Mr Field grinned in acknowledgement, then rose and dipped a couple of times before catching the Speaker's eye and ejecting an interrogative spark, which was readily quenched by the frontbench team. Other attempts to get the new minister going were just as futile.

In truth Mr Darling is not a man from whom anyone could sensibly expect a spectacular ignition - in rhetorical terms he appears to be more of an indoor firework - kitemarked for domestic safety, and obstinately reluctant to take light. Even when he does the display is modest, leaving behind it a feeling that the singed fingers and eager anticipation may not have been entirely worthwhile.

He described Iain Duncan-Smith as "pawing like a bull desperate to enter a china shop" after the shadow minister had questioned the continuing viability of the social security budgets, but the dull light shed by this simile (what kind of bull is it that waits to be admitted to the china shop?) was less illuminating than the repeated cries of "What would you cut?" from Labour backbenchers. Mr Duncan-Smith, spotting an opportunity to get a hoof to the Labour Wedgwood, replied confidently that the working families tax credit would be for the drop. "We now at least have a policy from the Honourable gentleman," replied Mr Darling, a last brief gush of sparks before he returned to the steady extrusion of ash-grey formalities.

Robin Cook's statement on Kosovo was the one moment when a colder draught entered these well-insulated proceedings, his words about the plight of refugees eerily augmented by a crying baby in the gallery, as if a dubious sound effect had been added to underline the resolute solemnity which ministers conventionally adopt at such moments. Michael Howard, adopting what seemed to be a standard Conservative tactic of shooting off a barrage of wildly hopeful questions rather than a single well-aimed one, failed to hit the target and had to make do with watching the Labour Party's own Katusha rocket launcher, Tony Benn, deliver a salvo from the rear. Wasn't this intervention, he asked in his final shot at the Foreign Secretary, "likely to restart the Cold War?" Nobody appeared to shiver at this suggestion but it was the closest we came to wind-chill all afternoon.