Milburn the undertaker is upstaged by Iraqi bombshell's deadly accuracy

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The House really is at its worst doing this sort of thing.

The House really is at its worst doing this sort of thing.

Dead people (or "the bodies of deceased patients" in political discourse) "were inappropriately kept in a hospital's Chapel of Rest". To listen to the Government you'd think it was a matter beyond politics, but it must have been a damaging political scandal.

Why else would the Minister for the Bodies of Deceased Patients (Mr Milburn) present himself at the dispatch box fighting tooth and nail for his party's reputation?

Labour supporters will be relieved to know that the Government is blameless. It's not their fault. It's the health authority's fault. Look: their manager has resigned.

It's hard to know how seriously to take this. Dying is the difficult thing; the dead are rather beyond it all. The next of kin apparently want to know whether their relative was among those stored on the floor - grief does strange things to people's judgement. Being stored on a chapel floor is ridiculous; but there are worse things in death. That's why when someone we love dies, we blank out the mechanics of a post-mortem examination.

Liam Fox, the Tory health spokesman, failed to conform to the pieties of the day with his uninhibited onslaught, but he made some trenchant points. Labour Party stooges running the health service. Incestuous and corrupt regime. The NHS being used to deliver ministerial targets for shorter waiting lists rather than dealing with clinical priorities. The sort of things that you can't argue against.

But Mr Milburn didn't need to argue. He caught the mood of the House expertly; his drama coach must have been up all night.

Between them they have developed a brilliant new look to be used in grief-appropriate situations. A low, slow look, which is deployed round colleagues, as if at a funeral on stage at the Comedy Theatre. It's the look of stage undertaker. Sober.

Solemn. Stupid. Or as the Luton South Labour MP, Margaret Moran (vying with Harriet Harman for the Oscar for Most Tasteless Performance in a National Tragedy) put it: sympathetic.

Sombre. Swift.

He spoke slow and low. Then, as the House fell for it, he went lower and slower. "In the past there were no clear guidelines about how dignity and respect for deceased patients should be ensured," he said, fatuously. But now there are. And they are national guidelines. Published all over the country.

Circulated. No excuse.

So: No slopping out chamber pots in the scrub area. No Chinese takeaways to be left inside patients after operations. No dressing up unconscious patients in bra and panties. And absolutely no leaving dead bodies on chapel floors.

In case the NHS hadn't taken the point, Mr Milburn made it several times (they're slow learners out there). Bodies on chapel floors was "quite inappropriate and appalling". "Totally and utterly unacceptable". And, the procedure has "absolutely no place in modern medical practice".

How times have changed since the last Tory administration.

Next to take centre stage was a woman in the public gallery who threw a bundle of paper into the chamber and began shouting: "Sanctions are killing children in Iraq!" The doorkeepers were on her. But it took three or four of them to muzzle her and prise her away.

The business of the House continued. The Tory backbencher. The smooth minister. The woman wrenched her face free: "Stop sanctions killing children!"

Hospitals in Iraq, it will be remembered, have a larger mortuary problem than we do. Call me sentimental, but hers was the only moving contribution to the debate.

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