Tone's talented team delivers a class act

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The Independent Online
The Boy Prime Minister's top three priorities are education, education and education (no one is quite sure what the next three are). So he has stuffed the Education and Employment team with the best talent available to him. Yesterday that talent was on gorgeous display in the first Education Question Time (shortly to be re-christened Education Education Education Question Time).

Most impressive, as one might expect, is David Blunkett. He may well now be the best orator in the House - his fingers scampering over his braille notes - conveying his terrifying singlemindedness about improving state education.

To see him deal with the former schools minister, Cheryl Gillan (C, Chesham & Amersham), was like watching Oliver Cromwell counter the arguments of an ungodly and indulgent Royalist.

Ms Gillan had come out fighting. "I would like a direct answer to a direct question," she demanded. What would happen to the "36,000 of our brightest children who will be robbed" of their chance of private schooling when the assisted places scheme is abandoned?

Mr Blunkett was utterly contemptuous. They were "not the brightest", he retorted, "the brightest exist in all schools." So he was not just concerned about the 36,000, but all the 7 million. Glory, glory, how things have changed!

The unworldliness of the Opposition was emphasised when Sir Patrick Cormack (C, South Staffordshire) - a pleasant but pompous expert on ecclesiastical architecture - chose to make one of those ancient and routine debating points about education in Islington.

But what did the knight of inner-city London know? One found oneself wondering how well he might cope lecturing form 3W of Holloway Comprehensive on the beauties of rural churches. I'd give him five minutes.

More down to earth, Graham Brady - the new Tory at Altrincham, whose irresistible combination of hair, muscles and teeth, puts one in mind of Prince Andrew at his most virile - asked whether grant-maintained schools would be safe under Labour.

He was answered by new minister Estelle Morris. Ms Morris is deceptively frail and quiet-voiced, possessing the body of Edith Piaf, and the voice of Marcel Marceau. But she was not sufficiently sotto voce for us to miss her promising that "all schools will flourish under New Labour". All? Now, that's quite a claim.

Then a gently spoken dissident, Gerry Steinberg (Lab, City of Durham), questioned part of the Puritan revolution by asking whether it had really been necessary to publish the list of 18 failing schools this week. Wouldn't such stigmatisation just reduce teacher morale?

Ms Morris, however, regretted rien. The publication, she tinkled, "gave a very strong message from the new government." One ending (she didn't go on) in "off".

My attention was then caught by the attempts of school standards supremo Stephen Byers (brilliant but grim) to deal with Minister's Neck. MN, as it is known, is caused by the fact that so many MPs are Labour, and sit behind the ministers.

Ministers answering questions thus have two options: (a) don't look at your questioner at all, but rudely deliver your answer to the opposite wall, as though it might bounce off and come back, or (b) crane round, keeping your mouth close to the microphone while swivelling your eyes to meet those of the interrogator.

The human head being what it is, the neck has to do a lot of work, and the eyes have to roll hard to one side while the lips must be slid to the other. In bad cases the features stick, and even surgery will not help.

Mr Byers experimented with all the possibilities and settled for staring fixedly straight ahead. Very wise; the boy will go far.

From this position he dispensed revolutionary justice to any that got in his way. A huge brain is no disqualification from the possession of a ruthless temperament.

As he showed to Liberal Democrat spokesthing Don Foster. Mr Foster is a good but loud man, who - despite promptings from this column has yet to comprehend that the sensitive microphones in the House already amplify his voice - yelled something about Labour's plans for spending yer actual money on education.

Mr Byers curtly referred him to 1 May. "The British people spoke on that day," was his reply. True, but unsatisfying.

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