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UK Politics

Andy McSmith's Sketch: Theresa May gives a lesson in six ways not to answer the same question

The serious moment soon passed as MPs reverted to doing what they do best – baiting each other

There was an interlude in the Commons chamber on Monday when the braying and barracking died down and Michael Gove was heard in silence as he described what has allegedly been going on in some Birmingham schools.

The details suggest some children are being given an education devised not to prepare them for adult life in secular Britain but to isolate them and keep them susceptible to preachers of jihad.

The serious moment soon passed as MPs reverted to doing what they do best – baiting each other. The Speaker, John Bercow, had acceded to a Labour request to call Theresa May to the despatch box first. She was centre stage for an entire hour, while the Education Secretary sat nearby, nervously re-reading his papers as he awaited his turn.

Who was running the country while all this was going on? Not David Cameron – he was in Sweden arguing with Angela Merkel over who is to be the next EU President. Not George Osborne, Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith, Justine Greening, Jeremy Hunt, Andrew Lansley, Sir George Young or any of the other ministers who had turned out in a show of solidarity, and of course could not leave during Theresa May’s hour lest their departure be interpreted as a snub to Gove. I greatly fear it may have been Nick Clegg.

Theresa May began nervously but gained confidence as it transpired that the Labour MPs were not clear about why they had dragged her to the Chamber. Officially, the topic was “terrorism”, her favourite subject. “I have excluded more foreign hate preachers than any Home Secretary before me!” she exulted. When David Blunkett stood up to accuse her of being “patronising”, I half-expected her to retort: “And how many hate preachers did you exclude, big boy?”

The real reason she was there was for Labour MPs to torment her about her recent spat with Michael Gove. They hit upon a question that she really did not want to be asked – whether it was her recently departed special adviser, Fiona Cunningham, who flouted the ministerial code by posting a confidential letter on the Home Office website to embarrass the Education Secretary.

Ms May was asked the same question by six Labour MPs. Each time she produced another formula for not answering.

Excitement gave way to tedium. MPs who had started out spoiling for a fight took refuge in their iPhones and iPads, and Michael Gove, following on, had an easier time than he could have expected. Easier, too, than he deserved.