Shooting Tory foxes is no problem, but Clarke's a harder target

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The Independent Online

There they were again, the Caledonians overrunning the Commons: the hooting Scotsmen, fluting Scotswomen and the Scottish Speaker on his throne,

There they were again, the Caledonians overrunning the Commons: the hooting Scotsmen, fluting Scotswomen and the Scottish Speaker on his throne,

gargling like a blender full of bananas. You don't expect much from Scottish questions, so no one was disappointed.

However, in this windy wilderness, we did benefit from an object lesson in political discourse. Brian Wilson is some sort of minister, or secretary, or question-answerer for the Scottish Office. On being castigated for the price of fuel in the Highlands he retorted that the price of Esso at the filling station at Inverurie was exactly the same price as in West Hampstead. Ha! Take that!

Having disposed of that issue, Mr Wilson blithely agreed with the questioner who then rose, that there was indeed a "huge discrepancy" in petrol prices in different parts of the country.

This ability to hold two contradictory ideas comfortably in your head at the same time, without any sense of embarrassment - let alone shame - and indeed to express them with equal conviction, is an essential, perhaps the essential, political talent.

Thus: when we saw Alan Milburn, Secretary of State for Health, at the Labour Party conference denouncing, to great applause, the private sector's role in the NHS, we should have known he was on the very point of signing a concordat with those profit-driven, private-sector reptiles.

The full content of Mr Milburn's address (Resources and Priorities for the NHS) yesterday needn't detain the sketch. Suffice to say that enormous increases announced in nurses, doctors and equipment are going to make it much harder to explain, in three years' time, why the service is still so bad. No, the interest lies with the Opposition's response. Last week, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, shot the Tory fox with his pre-Budget statement. His shadow, Michael Portillo, caved in and failed to retort. Kenneth Clarke from the back benches, made the strongest contribution for the Opposition.

By a peculiar symmetry, the same happened with health. Mr Milburn shot the Tory Fox who was then in no condition to retort and Mr Clarke made the strongest opposition contribution.

He's a plucky young fellow, Liam Fox, but he failed to inflict any damage on the minister because he seemed to agree with most of his proposals and indeed, promised to match them, especially to redress health inequalities. Mr Milburn was not weakened by this praise: "Poverty, poverty, poverty. La, la, la. It's just boring for Conservative MPs." He was quoting from Dr Fox's days in government. But the doctor can carry these two contradictory ideas comfortably in his head.

Mr Clarke confined his congratulations to two items, thus establishing economically his stance of graceful impartiality. He went on: "Is [Mr Milburn] promising not to return the bust and boom of the first years of Labour?" (Heckling.) "He knows the present crisis is caused by his Government cancelling the annual spending review in which we had always raised health spending in line with needs and events. Now he has an increase next year which matches the kind of increase I was able to announce in 1990."

Whether or not this was a reasonable point, it was more powerful than anything his front bench had put up.

Mr Milburn reminded him the net increase in 1995, when Mr Clark was Chancellor, was 1.6 per cent. Was that bad? Who knows. Probably it was the same sort of increase as Labour made in its first year.

But Mr Milburn could comfortably hold those two figures in his head without the least embarrassment, let alone shame. He is the minister, after all.

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