Absurd charade of pointless questions

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Indy Politics
Tony? Tony, can you hear me? Tony? Please, Tony. Ton-eee! Look, if you see Tony (on Concorde, on your council estate or on the bus with Mr Prescott), thrust this page in front of him and get him to read it.

You see Tony, it can't go on. You've come into power all keen to change everything, determined to throw out the old, tired ways of doing things. That's why you opted for first names, lounge suits and kids' parties at Number 10. That's why you stopped the doling out of Commander of the British Empires to suburban Tory party fundraisers and jumble salesmen. And that is why you decided to try to take the bear-garden out of Prime Minister's Questions.

So what will you do to save us from the travesty, the absurd waste of time, the charade of departmental questions? Do you know that many of us sat through an hour of Trade and Industry questions yesterday, and heard about four minutes of anything that even vaguely approached accountability?

Granted, the Opposition didn't help. From the moment that Nigel Waterson, the sleek member for Eastbourne, stood up to intone the pre-election litany about the social chapter, minimum wage and trades union rights (instead of asking a half-way decent question), we knew that the usual tedious politicking would have its place. (I exempt from this charge the teddy- boy coiffured MP for North Essex, Bernard Jenkin, who is developing a nice line in quick and pointed questions. Yesterday's was: "Does the minister believe that business is paying too much in business rate?" For once I wanted to know the answer.)

But consider, Tony, the case of John Gunnell. Mr Gunnell is a man whose rock-cake features rarely register the turmoil of the battle of ideas. Yet the member for Morley and Rothwell was once a local government big cheese who ran the whole of West Yorkshire; now he asks tame questions in a voice like porridge being strained through a hiking sock. Yesterday the question bit of his peroration went like this: "Isn't it good that we have a Labour government?" No, really. And what was the purpose of this? To share a unique insight with any astonished colleagues who may have been on parliamentary delegations to other solar systems? Or simply to remind himself that he was still alive?

How about Mike Gapes, the florid soprano from Ilford, who forgot to append a question-mark of any kind to his intervention and simply told the Government that he wished to thank it on behalf of his constituents. Couldn't he write a letter? Or was it to ensure his place on page 6 of the Ilford Recorder, opposite "cockroaches found in curry house"?

Let us be charitable and assume that - temporarily - natural enthusiasm drove out the tiring duty of holding the executive properly accountable. But Tony, what about the ministers - your ministers? Do they have to engage in the same preposterous "my honourable friend is quite right" to every Labour query, and "I am astonished that the honourable gentleman should have the gall ..." to every Tory one? And when they do not know the answer, why can they not just say so?

Perhaps, Tony, this daftness explains why, of the the 36 questions tabled, only two were from women MPs. And why only two women backbenchers spoke during the entire hour. Establishing the new order is hard work; and slipping back to the old one is so very easy. Thank you for listening, and I hope you will enjoy the rest of the flight.

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