The Sketch: Belly for belly, the Government can't match 'leaner' Tories

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The Independent Online

The Tories started their autumn offensive (there must be a joke in there somewhere) with massive ground superiority. Their front bench was filled with one vast organism joined at the buttocks. So was their second bench.

The enormous presence of Michael Ancram held the centre and his conjoined siblings rippled and wobbled in their places. This was a slimmed down Shadow Cabinet? Belly for belly the Government seemed suddenly insubstantial.

Opposite: Jack Straw and his Number Two (technical term). And some other person I can never remember. But the middle fellow one does remember for more than one reason. On bad days, Denis MacShane's sinuses appear on Ordnance Survey maps. On good days they merely strain against their limitations like Lincolnshire sausages; yesterday they were bulging inside his facial cavity like balloon animals. It makes it that much easier for him to carry off the comic pomposity he does so well for our entertainment - as in: "I will be later be receiving a delegation." The words slip out with marvellous grandeur.

In Mr MacShane's world, the limitations of democracy are very distinct. When he disapproves of a referendum he calls it a plebiscite. The idea of putting Turkey's accession to the EU onto the French ballot paper "shows the danger of going down the plebiscite route". On another subject, it's very likely that a larger proportion of the popular vote that gave Tony Blair his second landslide (24 per cent) will, in Iraq, vote for a theocratic state and full sharia law. The dangers of "the plebiscite route" are not restricted to France.

David Blunkett arrived to announce that the Cabinet had agreed to pursue his identity card scheme. "On the database, information would be limited to that required to verify identity." Oh really? How does he know that? "Privacy and confidentiality would be an essential part of the system. Oh really? "The protection of civil liberties would be assured." But how does he know? "Let me make it clear: no one has anything to fear from being correctly identified." That's certainly untrue.

In his new role as shadow Home Secretary, David Davis did better than expected, asking: "Do identity cards work?". A very proper question. The ability of the Government to compile large databases is not encouraging. How will it prevent foreign terrorists operating here? ("Sorry officer, shall I present my card to the nearest police station within five days?") Labour's Andrew Bennett made a surprisingly effective attack on the same lines (voles can hurt, if they get you in the right place).

Mr Davis observed that parliament was to approve the card in principle but then regulations would provide for the details that can be included on them. Mr Davis seemed to remember that something similar had happened in the last big anti-terrorism Bill. The Home Secretary had promised that only the highest-ranking security officers would be able to inspect our telephone and internet records - it turns out that very petty officials in local councils can access them at will.

Those who approve ID cards have to take the Home Secretary's word at face value. How on earth is that done?