Fast footwork by a cool witness

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The Independent Online
WHEN SOMEONE looks unflappable, their demeanour calm and relaxed, always keep a weather eye on the feet. Yesterday, under the chief witness's table, the Prime Minister's pedal extremities were given to some frenetic tapping.

When the Scott inquiry's counsel, Presiley Baxendale, gave one of her nervous giggles and shuffling apologies followed by the inevitable killer question, the Major left foot shuffled.

But from the waist up this was a confident performance. Indeed, John Major seemed to have been studying Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, giving vent to the alliterative and repetitive lilt of Alfred Doolittle. 'Neither at that stage, nor later, was I involved in the formulation of the guidelines, consideration of the guidelines, amendment of the guidelines or interpretation of the guidelines.'

Shut your eyes and it could have been Stanley Holloway on a bad day, or Neil Kinnock on a good one.

In good Agatha Christie style there was more than one instance of mysterious handwriting on letters and Civil Service drafts

the origin of which the Prime Minister promised yesterday to trace.

And there was a stock character of the mystery genre, the guilty- looking bit-part player, introduced to confuse the audience - Alex Allan, the Prime Minister's principal private secretary. Next to the smiling John Major, Mr Allan looked unhappy, gnawed his lip and even knocked a glass of water on to the carpet.

What a contrast was Mr Major's cool and almost moving performance. He told a tale of ministers deluged with intelligence reports, with letters, with Civil Service drafts: 'Theirs is a huge flow. The reality is that if every piece of paper that came into that office was seen by the minister concerned they would do nothing but read it, so there has to be a filtering process.'

On the face of it this was unarguable, though on the face of it, it could excuse ministers from responsibility for almost anything.

When the joint assaults from Ms Baxendale and Lord Justice Scott tried to pin the Prime Minister down on whether there had been impropriety, he had a stock and not ineffective reply, repeated on several occasions: 'This is exactly why I set up the inquiry, so that you could tell me.'