All you need to know to be a mealy-mouthed MP

Click to follow
It is always a pleasure to see the political mind at work. It is not a great pleasure, but a pleasure nevertheless, in the same way as it is an indefinable pleasure to watch a British football team playing for a draw in the first away leg, or two tennis players getting involved in endless rallies on a dead surface. At the end of such spectacles the footballer can say he got a result, and the tennis player can say he wore his opponent down. The politician can say, in his own way: 'Well, at least I never answered the question.'

These thoughts are provoked by listening at the weekend to Radio 4's Any Questions, which, for a change, included only two overtly political figures.

One was Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP, who seems so affable and human that it is hard to think of him as a politician, and the other was a Tory MP called Michael Forsyth. It was the latter's tactics under pressure that I think would serve as a model to all emerging MPs.

Mr Forsyth warmed up with one or two set pieces. All politicians have little routines that are practised beforehand to score debating points. A recent one is to react to accusations of quango- stuffing by the Tory government by saying: 'Quangos have actually decreased under the Tory government]', which is apparently true if you accept the Tories' peculiar redefinition of what constitutes a quango, but not true if you think of it in any other way, and sure enough, Michael Forsyth came up with this new myth, which had Austin Mitchell spluttering with wrath or laughing till he choked - hard to tell which.

Someone had also pointed out beforehand to Forsyth that if the MPs' money-for-questions topic came up, he should duck and weave by slamming the Labour MPs for withdrawing from the committee of inquiry. He did so. One Labour leader, Forsyth stormed, had said that Labour were withdrawing our men from the committee. How dare he call them our men? he stormed. When a Member is elected to Westminster, his first duty is to Parliament. . . ] A fine-sounding move there, till you remember that a Member's first duty is actually to the voters who send him to Parliament, unless you are a Tory MP, in which case it is to the Whips.

But Forsyth really came into his own with the question about the University of Huddersfield man who was given a secret and scandalous pay-off of pounds 500,000 by his fellow governors, the sort of thing that would give Thatcherism a bad name if it had ever had a good one. Here is the entire sequence of play in slow motion.

Forsyth: 'I think perhaps there is a question mark over the accountability and the degree of transparency which there is in these matters. As I understand it, in the new universities the boards of governors are in effect almost self-appointing, and it may well be that one has to look at this area of accountability. I cannot think of any arguments to defend payments of this amount, particularly when it was not made openly with all to . . . ' Dimbleby: 'When you say there are grounds for 'looking', are you saying the Government should, or is intending to, re-examine this with a view to making this sort of thing impossible?' Forsyth: 'Oh, dear, I've got myself into trouble, haven't I? . . . I'm simply saying that it's an issue which will need to be addressed in the light of this experience, but what I would expect, and to be fair, up and down this country, in colleges, in universities, in institutions of further and higher education, there are literally thousands of men and women giving of their time to make these institutions a success - they do a fantastic job and it would be unfair to pick up one example like this and then say there's sleaze throughout our public life. What I saw when I was Education Minister was people really putting a tremendous amount into making these institutions a success and that's what we should recognise as happening in our country.'

Several things for budding politicians to note. First, the way Forsyth thinks he has got into trouble by seeming to answer the question, and instinctively jokes his way out of it. Note the way, when tackled by Dimbleby, he immediately withdraws one cliche ('looking at this area of accountability') and inserts another, equally meaningless ('it's an issue which will need to be addressed in the light of this experience'). Note how he says 'but what I would expect' and then never says what he would expect but instead goes off into that long diversion about the literally thousands of good and true men and women who patiently get on with things, which is the political equivalent of kicking for touch.

Or why not just cut out the whole depressing passage and keep it in your wallet, so that if anyone asks you, 'How do you define 'mealy-mouthed'?', you can whip it out and say: 'This is what I mean by mealy-mouthed'?