The Sketch: MPs find dubious alibis for not consorting with Archer jokes

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The Independent Online
IT WAS 2.33pm and the runners and riders in the Archer stakes were under starter's orders. Who would be the first to make a joke about the disgraced Conservative candidate for London mayor and exactly how long would it take them to get to the line?

Not a lot of money was resting on a quick race. The going was soft - questions on Culture, Media and Sport - and the punter's favourite, Dennis Skinner, had been withdrawn due to illness. Some of the more promising horses were not in the running either, since, however tempted they might be, Tories were unlikely to join the race.

Early furlongs were not promising. Phil Sawford was the first Labour runner out of the gates and looked to have the perfect opportunity to finish things before they really began. Surely his tabled question, about the role of arts and sport in tackling social exclusion, gave him an unassailable lead?

It would have been child's play to give the supplementary an Archeresque twist. He might have asked the minister what hobbies Lord Archer could take up to while away the lonely hours of leisure he now finds at his disposal. He might have suggested that amateur dramatics - in the right context, naturally - can do wonders to restore the damaged self-esteem of society's rejects. But no, he wanted to say something pious about Kettering mini-rugby club. Eric Forth, champing at the bit on the Tory benches, couldn't restrain his disgust at this fumbled opportunity; "Oh," he whinnied, "absolutely sickening!"

There was worse to come. Gareth R Thomas, asking a question about the range of ticket prices in London, asked the minister to comment on the possibility of "yet another Tory party performance of Julius Caesar" in the event of Michael Portillo winning the Kensington by-election. He had all the qualities needed for a worthy winner, inconsequentiality, smirking self-congratulation, a creepy sense of party advantage. Unfortunately he had leapt the rails and landed on another course altogether.

On we plodded, through disabled parking at the rebuilt Royal Opera House, over the deficiencies of the Wembley Stadium redesign, past one of Peter Ainsworth's extravagant displays of indignation, and still no closer to the finish line. There were glimmers of hope." Does the minister share my incredulity..." Barry Gardiner began, and the more excited punters muttered "Go on my son" under their breath. But then they slumped again - it wasn't Lord Archer's career that had taken his breath away, but something else entirely.

Spectators were beginning to drift to the car park when, after 33 minutes and 18 seconds of waiting, Martin Salter put an end to the sorry spectacle, with the follow-up to a question about free television licences for pensioners. Would Lord Archer, he asked, have to pay for a licence in the event that he ends up in jail? No, Chris Smith, replied, he would be able to watch free 16 years ahead of expectations. Either Mr Smith's mental arithmetic is very nimble or the result was fixed.

Peter Mandelson's statement on political progress in Northern Ireland was dull, and honourably so. This is not a subject for colourful rhetoric, if only because concrete metaphor so easily gets the speaker into trouble. Harry Barnes showed how when he said that in all difficult negotiations "there are times for grabbing someone's hand and nailing it to the table", and Mr Mandelson wandered into dangerous territory when he expressed the view that earlier attempts at peace had been like "shotgun marriages".

It was no good, he continued, putting parties "up against a wall" to force an outcome. Quite so. Time for "modalities of decommissioning" and "principles of inclusivity". Time for the language of bureaucracy, not the language of violence.