The Sketch: The man on death row who keeps talking about electronics

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The Independent Online
POOR David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, does not look happy as he languishes in a dingy corner of the Cabinet Office on Death Row awaiting probable execution in the forthcoming summer reshuffle. He was let out yesterday by his warder, Peter Mandelson (technically his deputy) for a walk round the exercise yard, otherwise known as the Chamber of the House of Commons, to answer a few questions before Executioner Blair came on subsequently for Prime Minister's questions.

Prime Ministers can do what they like with the office of Chancellor of the Duchy. Thatcher and Major used it as an entrance ticket to get the Chairman of the Conservative Party in through the cabinet door to sit with the rest of his mates.

Mr Blair, lumbered with the Labour Party requirement to form his first cabinet from those elected by backbench MPs when in opposition, has used it as a means of finding Dr Clark something to do without getting in the way of the big boys.

They've made him paperclips and ink monitor, well, computers actually. He is in charge of stopping us going back to the 19th century on Millennium day when apparently some bug in all our computers is going to turn them into quill pens.

With the Government becoming even more robotic, we had Neil Gerrard (Lab. Walthamstow) asking Dr Clark about "electronic government". Dale Campbell Saviours (Lab, Workington) wanted to know if there was any news on Genesis?" which is apparently something to do with information technology in Cumbria. (I suspect Dr Clark is more worried about the end rather than the beginning.)

Sir George Young, the new shadow, wanted to know how many ministers were using electronic red boxes (none) but Dr Clark said that we should watch this space and he would "share their secrets with the world". After the Sandline affair, somehow I rather doubt this.

Apparently ministers are now communicating with each other electronically. Sir Peter Tapsell, (Con, Horncastle) suggested that if more ministers "were on speaking terms they would not need to use computers".

The Prime Minister interrupted his busy week running Europe, telling Chirac and Kohl what to do, and dropped by for 30 minutes to answer his questions. A fly on the Downing Street wall has probably heard Mr Blair saying to Alastair Campbell something to the following effect: "Look, Alistair, I told you to abolish this question time business altogether - not just reduce it to once a week. Anyway, if anyone wants to ask me a question, we can get it done on that Des O'Connor show I went on the other days. (By the way, Alistair, I'm not sure that this glottal stopping business really worked.)"

William Hague pressed Mr Blair on Sandline, asking if he would sack Lady Symons, the junior Foreign Office Lords Minister. Mr Blair replied that there was no evidence that she had "deliberately" misled Parliament.

The robotic nature of question time continues apace. After last week's outbreak of independence from Andrew Mackinlay, Labour's Backbench Daleks were out in full force but some of them had a wiring problem.

Lawrie Quinn (Lab, Scarborough and Whitby) fluffed his line asking a patsy question wanting Mr Blair to congratulate Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, on the easing of the beef ban. The Prime Minister pointedly paid no tribute to Cunningham, urging caution and saying that there was "a long way to go".

Roger Casale (Lab, Wimbledon) told us that at one school in his constituency, thanks to the Government's new deal for schools, "all the children are already wired up to computers".

Are there no lengths to which Labour will not go to turn the whole population, as well as their MPs, into robots?