The Sketch: Tories back teachers' union in curious role reversal

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The Independent Online
THE WEEKEND came early to the Commons since most MPs had already bunked off after the last vote on Wednesday evening. Yesterday, the Commons began the experiment of Thursday morning sessions, but few members bothered to turn up for education and employment questions. While the Government managed to summon 50 of its loyal robots the Tories mustered just 12.

Role reversal seems to have overtaken both front benches with David Willetts, the Tory education spokesman, speaking out for the National Union of Teachers, opposing the Government's return to traditional education methods. His intervention, and that of his deputy, Teresa May, drew almost exclusively on reports, surveys and quotes from this last bastion of restrictive union practices.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, David Blunkett, was revelling in the fact that he is hated by teachers almost as much as Kenneth Baker was when he began the process of wreaking havoc on the educational establishment over a decade ago. In response to Phil Willis (Lib Dem, Harrogate and Knaresborough) who asked about the effects of staging teachers' pay awards, Mr Blunkett positively gloried as he replied: "The impact on teachers has been generally to irritate them."

In Mr Blunkett's onward march back to the basics of the glory days of blackboard and chalk, streaming, and multiplication tables, there is little opportunity for trendy Labour MPs to participate in question time without appearing disloyal. But fashionable Ben Bradshaw (Lab, Exeter) bridged the divide between Old and New trendies by suggesting that "citizenship" be taught in schools. Quoting a letter from a nine-year-old, he said he wanted schools to teach democracy and politics. Mr Bradshaw still suffers from the trendy lefty agenda, probably instilled in him 10 years ago when he worked for the BBC.

The Commons moved on to the pick 'n' mix fashion of business questions presided over by the ice-cool, charming Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House. Anything goes during this playtime opportunity for MPs to flick ink pellets at the Government. Gordon Prentice (Lab, Pendle) and Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover) both used the chance to denounce the Liberal Democrat-Labour discussions on co-operation. Mr Skinner recalled the pact during the Seventies Labour government when "it all ended in tears because they couldn't stand the heat".

A few Tory troublemakers led by Julie Kirkbride (C, Bromsgrove) ran over to the playground sandpit to throw handfuls of mud and dirt at the Government over the Mandelson affair. Patrick Nicholls (C, Teignbridge) wanted a debate on building society lending practices while John Taylor (C, Solihull) called for the United States-style impeachment.

By lunchtime, the House was empty except for a dozen members of the Public Accounts Committee who stayed to listen to an erudite and elegant speech from one of Parliament's newest feared and revered grandees, David Davis (C, Haltemprice and Howden), the committee's chairman.

Once Mr Davis was a young whipper-snapper junior whip with a menacing look but now as chairman of the PAC he has real power, causing many a permanent secretary to quiver in the face of his polite but menacing questions.

The debate on the Public Accounts Committee ended early. The new Thursday arrangements the House has foolishly approved have ensured, on the basis of yesterday's experience, that unless there is controversial business to detain MPs they will all skive off early in the week. That, no doubt, was the motive behind the Labour majority on the modernisation committee as they hammered yet another nail into the coffin of the parliamentary scrutiny of ministers.