Around the world in forty winks

When Ken Clarke dozed off in the Budget speech, he was following a long tradition. Andy McSmith celebrates the art of the public nap
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Indy Politics

Did Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, find blissful repose while sitting on the Government front bench listening to George Osborne's plans to stimulate growth in the economy? According to his official spokesman, the Cabinet's elder statesman was awake throughout, though his eyes were closed. Witness testimony and video evidence suggest otherwise.

Ladbrokes, who lost a four-figure sum to punters who laid bets at 16-1 that Clarke would drift off during the speech, are not going to be so generous in future. They have shortened the odds to evens that he will do it again at some major event during the remainder of the year.

But the Justice Secretary should not be judged harshly if indeed he did drift away to the Land of Nod during one of the more technical sections of a less-than-gripping speech. It was a heated, overcrowded chamber, Mr Osborne's voice is robotic, Mr Clarke is 70 years old, and it has been alleged that he was not the only Tory MP who failed to stay awake. The Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans, and the Environment Minister James Paice, have also been mentioned.

In Parliamentary terms, this is risky stuff, because there are things that MPs are not allowed to do. They are not allowed to accuse another MP of being drunk, even if he or she is swaying and breathing alcohol fumes. Nor are they allowed to accuse an MP of being asleep.

Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, was forcibly reminded of this rule when he was running for the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party in November 2007, after a television interview in which he accused Gordon Brown of having made such a boring speech during the State Opening of Parliament that he sent the then Speaker, Michael Martin, to sleep. An irate Speaker made him come to the Commons and utter a fulsome apology to jeering MPs.

Mr Clarke is not alone in being caught in slumber. In the RAF, sleeping during exercises used to be known as having a "Fred Mulley", in honour of a Labour Secretary of State for Defence who took 40 winks in the presence of the Queen – and amid the noise of fighter aircraft overhead – during her Jubilee Review at RAF Finningley in 1977.

In Washington, it was a persistent rumour that President Ronald Reagan would struggle to stay awake during meetings of his Cabinet, but since they were held behind closed doors, his loyal staff were able to deny that he ever nodded off.

But Dick Cheney, George W Bush's Vice-President, was caught out repeatedly, most notably in October 2007 during an emergency Cabinet meeting held live on television to demonstrate the urgency with which the federal government was turning its attention to wildfires sweeping through California. The camera also caught Cheney looking dead to the world during a press briefing by President Bush and China's President Hu Jintao in April 2006. He claimed he was looking at his notes.

On YouTube, there is a video of Bill Clinton at a ceremony in honour of Martin Luther King, in which the great civil rights campaigner's most famous phrase "I have a dream" has taken on a new meaning.

When European leaders gathered in November 2009 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the cameras plainly caught Silvio Berlusconi, the man who claims to have the vitality of a 40-year-old, asleep.

Djoko Suyanto, Indonesia's Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, has denied dozing during an inaugural ceremony last July, claiming that he only rubbed his face. It was unfair to criticise ministers who looked sleepy that day, said the Justice Minister Patrialis Akbar, because they had been up most of the night watching the World Cup Final.

It was never disputed that Japan's Finance Minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, went out like a light during a press briefing at a G7 summit in February 2009, for which he apologised and resigned. The only speculation was over what made him comatose. He blamed a combination of jet lag and medication, denying he was drunk.

Zimbabwe's 85-year-old President Robert Mugabe was photographed fast asleep during a conference in Harare in February, which he had called to encourage foreign firms to invest in his country.

Teo Chee Hean, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, also looked like a man in hibernation as his fellow Deputy PM Wong Kan Seng delivered a speech to Parliament. After Australia's Gaming and Racing Minister, Kevin Greene, was photographed having a siesta during question time in Parliament in March 2009, his spokesman claimed that he suffered from "droopy eye syndrome". Opposition politicians did not believe it.

In the merciless age of instant communication when politicians spend so much of their time in front of cameras, it is inevitable that more and more will be caught in repose.

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