Long quest for the simple answer

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Indy Politics
"Questions" in the House of Commons are not the same as questions elsewhere. Outside (doubtless a consequence of our education system), the word suggests something to which an "answer" might be forthcoming. This convention stops at St Stephen's entrance; after nearly two decades in power this lot of ministers have perfected all the other, less revealing, ways of dealing with the impertinences of implied criticism. For the first 10 years, of course, it was "when the honourable gentleman's party was in government, the country was five minutes away from insurrection and the blood of white Englishwomen ran red in the streets".

Today, some ministers do not trouble even to refer to the fact that a question has been asked, simply slagging off current Labour policy (or lack of it) by way of response.

One oasis in this desert, however, is transport questions. Here, as yesterday, the chosen technique is not abuse or evasion but extreme long-windedness. True, the replies invariably begin with an expression of astonishment and hurt that the hon gent or lady opposite should be so ignorant of the facts, or unappreciative of heroic government efforts, as to ask such a hostile question. But then they set to and answer. And answer. And answer.

Take junior minister John Watts, who is capable of immense expatiation on the subject of planting trees next to motorways, and will always sacrifice an unnecessary joke in favour of a lengthy invitation for members to join him in a visit to said trees.

His colleague, John Bowis, is equally unfrivolous. He it was who fielded an inquiry from Michael Brown (Con, Brigg and Cleethorpes) concerning drivers falling asleep on the M180/A180. A study from Loughborough University had suggested that there was "clear evidence that if one travels in an easterly direction towards Grimsby, the road has certain conditions that cause drivers to go to sleep".

Mr Bowis leaned his substantial stomach against the despatch box, and settled in for a long reply. In general, he told the House, accidents on that stretch of road were low (I half expected to discover that on the German A180 they were much higher, due to the social chapter), but there were indeed many incidents of driver fatigue. How could he explain this? Mr Bowis thoughtfully and seriously and slowly outlined all the conceivable options; lengthy journeys might account for it, he droned, as might road conditions, or - possibly - "drivers not observing the Highway Code". In other words, every factor that might explain any accident anywhere at any time. Personally, I am attracted to the idea that this stretch of road is (for some reason) frequented by acquaintances of Mr Bowis, who - recalling evenings spent with the great man - drift off into fatal reverie.

But hold on a second, you may say. How can you simultaneously complain about dismissive answers from the despatch box, and over-long ones? And how would you respond to questions from the likes of the sententious Dr Robert Spink, drink-banning half-member from Castle Point? Dr Spink, resplendent in a double-breasted suit (though he barely musters a single breast himself), was asking Tony Newton (Leader of the House) about drugs policy. Would he not commend the efforts of Snap, "which stands" (said Spink, proudly) "for Say No and Phone". I would have paid a year's salary had Newton suggested that Spink might usefully Foad. "Which stands for ..."

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