If the Coalition is producing policy in cavalier fashion, the opposition Roundheads have very flat feet. Labour used an Urgent (bit self-defeating) Question "to drag the minister into the House to hold him to account" as the cant has it.
Andy Burnham was in to ask the question – and Ed Miliband was there to associate himself with it. But they were heavily outnumbered, with half as many backbenchers as the Coalition, and no one of comparable rank to Ed (not even the Deputy Prime Minister).
This lack of organisation wouldn't be worth mentioning but Andy was recently appointed the new generation's "election co-ordinator". We may need an even newer generation at this rate. Who's in the Commons crèche these days?
The casus belli was the £7bn "fairness premium" announced by Nick Clegg last week. Poorer students are to be given this money over four years to help them through school – and maybe help them to Oxbridge (only 45 out of 80,000 of the poorest currently make it).
Is this fair? I'm the wrong person to ask, "fairness" doesn't make any sense to me in these matters. But that's the definition of cant. It's impenetrable to outsiders.
Fair or not, it's a very Labour-friendly policy – and indeed it actually was Labour policy at one point. You'd think it wasn't something to boost back into the headlines without a series of powerful and penetrating debating points.
Andy asked more about the process than the policy. He said it was all announced as shambolically as the child benefit changes; he wanted to know when had Gove been told, and had the Cabinet discussed the entire thing before the media had been briefed?
Does the public really mind about these things? The ancilliary points allowed Gove in his reply to dance around the "robbing Peter to pay Paul" point with nimble feet.
"I first knew about the premium – and nodded with approval – when I read the Lib Dem manifesto," he said with a latent smile to indicate he had told the truth without telling the truth.
And then the packed Labour front bench had to listen to Gove flattering their troops into submission. He "paid tribute to a great Education Secretary" (David Blunkett mimed a shot in the heart) under whose stewardship "standards rose in spite of three successive years of declining funding". (No one asked why £7bn was then so necessary.)
He praised Barry Sheerman for "two excellent questions" and declared, "I often find myself agreeing with him." Mike Gapes came in for a little aggressive petting, and even the Bercow report was praised with no indication of hidden revulsion.
Only Geraint Davies got rollicked, and there's no one the House more enjoys seeing turned upside-down.
The new amateurism on both sides of the House is a great relief to observers – and maybe the public. Leaders no longer have to admit they are omniscient and infallible. "Quite right," they can say. "Good point. We'll look at that again. We've got two years before it comes in. I do like that brooch by the way, may I ask where you got it?"Reuse content