The Sketch: MPs try to slip the leash, but Speaker keeps them muzzled

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The Independent Online
"SEVERAL OF my right honourable members have told me that I was courageous to put this question down," said Tony McWalter, the Labour/Co- operative MP for Hemel Hempstead, rounding off an inquiry about Freemasons in the police. "Did the Home Secretary understand," he said, that such secretive groups were "capable of precipitating real fear?"

Mr McWalter had his back to the wall as he made his point; if masked men were to attempt to seize him and bury him up to his neck at low tide he knew, at least, that they couldn't come from behind. Maybe he now hopes that Mr Straw will assign a Special Branch team to protect him from the Masonic fatwa that must already have been issued, but other MPs didn't look greatly impressed by his selfless act of bravery. They knew that there is something far more unnerving than disgruntled Freemasons and far more effective at stilling loose tongues in case of reprisals.

Last week Madam Speaker made known her displeasure at repeated attempts by members to raise the matter of General Pinochet's arrest and possible extradition. So yesterday, despite the tantalising presence of the Home Secretary, and despite several promising questions on the order paper, there was not a peep about him during oral questions.

Even Eric Forth, the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, and David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, managed to ask questions without mentioning his name. It was an act of self-restraint that called to mind the heroic obedience of a dog required to balance a meaty treat on its nose, until its owner gives the word of permission for it to toss it in the air and gobble it down. They knew, as everyone else did, that the Speaker has the power vocally to neuter a wayward canine.

But, later, in a far more impressive display of nerve than that demonstrated by Mr McWalter, Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, raised a point of order about the Speaker's ruling. He quoted Hansard, he quoted Erskine May, and the more he did so the more Madam Speaker tugged irritably at his choke-chain. "This is getting rather tedious," she said crossly.

Mr Leigh's whining became a little more strangulated as his collar tightened but it did not cease altogether. Since the columns of every newspaper in the land were filled with discussion of the general's future, and since MPs and ministers were able to comment freely outside the chamber, could the Speaker confirm that "we alone are not allowed to discuss this issue?"

Yes, the Speaker could confirm it.

MPs, used to the idea that they have more privileges than the man in the street, looked rather crestfallen, as only harshly disciplined dogs can. To show that she meant business Miss Boothroyd later rapped Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, over the nose with a rolled-up copy of Hansard when he too began to drift towards that irresistible lamppost.

In the House of Lords, Melvyn Bragg was making his maiden speech, and conjured up a vision more alarming than marauding Freemasons or a disgruntled Speaker. Every year, apparently, 30,000 media students graduate from universities and colleges. This is an appalling statistic and for a moment it seemed as if Lord Bragg might propose some way to stem the senseless waste of young lives.

But, on the contrary, he wanted to find them jobs - creating programmes for a new cable channel, funded by existing broadcasters as a hothouse for young British media talent. Who will actually watch all this stuff he didn't say, but perhaps that's for another day.