The Sketch: A rare occurrence in the House - a genuine debate

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The Independent Online

It was so exciting I forgot to take any notes. It was something you never see in the debating chamber of the Commons - a debate.

It was so exciting I forgot to take any notes. It was something you never see in the debating chamber of the Commons - a debate.

Rhondda's MP, Chris Bryant, asked a question about unemployment in the Welsh valleys and that attracted Tory jeers (he's the chair of some Euro committee, but had obviously been warned off asking any Euro-style question). Michael Howard rose. He said: "You can always tell when the Government is in trouble. They start singing 'Help me, Rhondda, help me, help me Rhondda'. That generated enormous laughter from everyone familiar with Welsh pop music from the early Bronze Age. Even I could see it was funny but had no idea why.

So it was for the rest of the session. You could see the occasion was electrifying but it was very hard to say why. I defy anyone to repeat any of their propositions precisely. The argument is metaphysical because each side is arguing against the case they think their opponents really want to make. None the less, it was fast, furious, highly charged and, on more than one occasion, extempore.

The one thing that does seem to be clearer is the result of a "no" vote. Mr Blair accepts that need not result in Britain leaving the European Union. The rest is a virtual argument in a virtual world.

Mr Howard asked more than once: If there's a "no" vote, will the Prime Minister veto the constitution or renegotiate it? Mr Blair won't do either but he says he will talk to other countries about it but that the Tories wouldn't agree to any constitution. Are you with me? Mr Howard replied he was against an EU constitution because only countries have constitutions but he wasn't opposed to treaties between countries, but then Mr Blair refuses to call this a constitution but a constitutional treaty. Theological differences, you think? In happier days, people were burnt at the stake for smaller distinctions. And maybe they will be again.

Tony Blair says he wouldn't agree to anything that would lead to a federal super state, and Mr Howard says he wants flexibility. If their positions were reversed it is just possible they would both be saying exactly the same thing. I like David Heathcoat-Amory's line. He said the other day that the Government's policy was to give categorical assurances one way followed by an ignominious retreat while pretending everything is the same and that everyone has changed except him. That's a pretty good summary of the British position since about 1972.

I saw, in the second bench down, a figure leaning forward earnestly. "Who's that baffled looking fellow," I asked a colleague, "he looks familiar." There was some consultation. "We think he's called Iain Duncan Something," they said. He looked pretty relieved not to be up at the dispatch box, thinking (if that's the word) on his feet.

They say lawyers, politicians, journalists and financial PR people are marrying each other more and more. It's probably true. Nobody else can understand what the hell they're taking about.