The Sketch: New addition to the Opposition repertoire: a counter-tenor honk

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
IF YOU spend a year in Parliament you hear some fairly extraordinary noises, most of which are common to both parties. Some are natural - instinctive exhalations of indignation or surprise, which create the distinctive moans of parliamentary debate. There's the rising moo of outrage you get when a speaker from the other side has given the truth a particularly flagrant kick in the teeth. Or there's the Mexican Wave tut, which follows on any remark thatsails too close to the wind in terms of insult: one member mutters "shame" in tones of dark disapproval, and it's instantly taken up by a neighbour and ripples along the benches. There are little "oofs" of surprise, amplified from the barely audible by synchronisation - as though backbenchers were giving a stadium display of choreographed astonishment.

Other noises are 100 per cent artificial - not a genuine response to the unexpected but a calculated attempt to suggest something out of the ordinary has just taken place. A Russian cinematographer called Kuleshov once conducted a famous experiment in which he edited footage of the same blank, impassive face alongside - respectively - a bowl of soup, a coffin and a baby. Viewers asked about the expression on the face obligingly interpreted it as "hunger", "grief" and "love", depending on which "sight" the face was notionally looking at.

Tory backbenchers sometimes apply the same principle to the bland, undifferentiated statements from the front bench opposite. If they laugh loud enough, they seem to think, then everyone will believe that what was just said was in some way particularly risible. Alternatively, if they utter a rising note of alarmed surprise the audience will somehow be convinced that the Government has just let the cat out of the bag. In fact, what's just been said is almost always indistinguishable from what was said yesterday and what will be said again tomorrow - but that doesn't stop the Conservatives from trying to pretend otherwise.

All these noises, though, are pretty familiar - common or garden decibels for a regular parliamentary observer. So it was a real treat yesterday to be able to add a new noise to the collection. The debate on public expenditure could legitimately have been billed as the last big debate of this century, though the actuality hardly lived up to the grand title. True, David Heathcoat-Amory, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, ended an entertaining speech in fine style, putting a brave face on the latest catastrophe to hit the Conservative Party by quoting Shaun Woodward at length in his peroration. "This year was meant to be Labour's year of delivery," he read out, "but all we have seen is broken promises." There was more and it was fiercer still, but Mr Heathcoat-Amory added to the sting with his last sentence: "And that, Mr Deputy Speaker, is what a member of this Labour Government thinks of his party's own policies."

Even some Labour MPs laughed at that - and they weren't the ersatz guffaws that often greet parliamentary jokes. Mr Heathcoat-Amory had earlier stirred something much more impressive out of his own party. Attacking Labour for waste in government, he mocked its creation of taskforces - the exact number and composition of which he had been unable to establish, despite repeated written questions. But he had managed to discover that these quangos by another name included the White-Headed Duck Taskforce. When he announced this a quite unearthly cackling rose up from the Conservative benches. The bass notes were provided by energetic quacking from several Tory backbenchers, but the clamour's real distinction was provided by a counter-tenor honk, so loud and uncontrollable that it started a kind of snickering chain-reaction throughout the whole House. The effect was similar to what you would achieve if you threw a fox into the middle of a waterfowl sanctuary - and we will not hear anything to match it until the next millennium.