Time and negligence take their inevitable toll

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Indy Politics
For most of my adult life the benches on the Tory side of the House have been much better populated than those on the other side. Sometimes it has seemed as though they simply bred more, reproducing themselves election after election with a creepy fecundity.

Many of them, individually, are pleasant, attentive and serious. But collectively they have become oily, smug, fractious, venal, ruthless, hectoring, selfish, bovine, inert, unthinking, self-satisfied, shameless, sinecured and - in the widest sense - corrupt. They are no longer connected to government, but concreted into it. With any reforming impulse long dead, their best and brightest have been ignored, marginalised or sent to serve in Hong Kong. Gradually their world has become one of influence and patronage, of dinners and limousines, of promises and phone calls, of hangers-ons and back-slappers. Time and negligence have intertwined and entangled their personal interests with the interests of the nation. Year after year they have sat together, stimulating each other's organs of prejudice, or stabbing each other in the back - half-party, half-dynasty: the Borgia Party.

How their leader has tried to save them from themselves! And what has it cost him! It was Scrupulous John, who had set up the Nolan Committee (as he had the Scott Inquiry) in a moment of crisis caused by a collapse of confidence in standards. It was Honest John who bought time by assuring the world that he would strain every sinew to expedite publication of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey's report into cash-for-questions. It was Hapless John who had once more failed to deliver, because what he had promised was either impossible, or (when push came to shove) politically damaging.

So, when a despatch box-caressing Tony Blair demanded yesterday that the PM pull his finger out and get the thing printed (hoping that he would do no such thing), Major's reply was bound to be inadequate - starting with obfuscation ("complex report ... thousands of pages of evidence ... time to consider ... time to respond...") and ending in an attack on the Opposition that was so brazen, that the very worst on his own benches looked cheered by it. The leader of the party of Neil Hamilton, Asil Nadir and John Latsis; the party that chose to shoot the messenger over cash- for-questions rather than execute its transgressors; the party of effortless transition from Cabinet room to boardroom - the Borgia Party leader attacked his opponents for their fondness for gold and lark's tongues.

If this was a depressing performance, how much more depressing to consider that - only minutes earlier, we had seen one hot-tip for the succession in full flow. Michael Howard had been "answering" questions as only he can.

"Brazen" does not describe the Home Secretary fairly, or do justice to the exceptional fluency - the flawlessness - of his delivery. He is adamantine, consisting of a series of pure, impervious surfaces, always reflecting light away from his glittering facets, and never, ever absorbing it. Jack Straw was "the burglar's friend", the Leader of the Opposition had "sought to excuse certain types of shoplifting and pickpocketing", instead of "inculcating a sense of right and wrong into our children".

You may think this ludicrous, but Cesare nodded and Lucretia fingered her ring. With John out of the way and Michael installed, the Borgias can settle all their old scores, regroup, replenish their stock of hellebore and sharpen their stilettoes, then start breeding again.