The Sketch: Chancellor answers a question in the House. Now that is a development

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The Independent Online

You would have laughed, it was the Chancellor's funniest bit for ages.

"House prices have risen as a proportion of household income," he said, "but not as a proportion of household wealth." And why not? "Household wealth has risen by 50 per cent since 1997!" I can feel you chuckling away. You are chuckling, aren't you?

Of course household wealth has increased by 50 per cent since 1997! It's because the price of houses has increased by 50 per cent since then! No? Maybe you had to be there.

Every word the Great Bruin utters demands an autopsy. When he says 57 per cent of private finance initiatives are now on-balance sheet, what's he talking about, the individual initiatives or the value of the initiatives? When he says productivity growth is more than 2 per cent a year, what slice of what report from what pro-Labour agency excluding what data does that figure comes from? When he says that the claim by Tory MP Howard Flight that £100bn of off-balance sheet borrowing is "totally bogus", we can only ask: "What on earth does he mean?" We're never going to get the facts, or a simulacrum of the facts, or even ghost facts out of Treasury questions. That is a matter of regret. At least we can say, with a generosity that usually eludes the Sketch, the first excursion by the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, against Gordon Brown came off better than anyone had thought possible.

Would the malevolent mannerliness that had tied up David Blunkett so well work against the Government's snarling, growling, brawling, roaring, stomping Beast? Would he cope with the Chancellor's Statistical Tourette's syndrome? In the event, he did very well; his most cutting line was a curt little reprimand. He said that the House deserved a more serious discourse than that offered by the Chancellor's belligerent tone, something developed no doubt in his relationship with the Prime Minister. It stung the Chancellor into addressing the question Mr Letwin had asked. That's an entirely new development and one that will need to be watched closely.

Mr Letwin's three questions hung together with the formal elegance of a syllogism. It's a bit wasted on the Commons, like trying to get a T S Eliot chant going at the FA Cup final. I vulgarise to quote his charges that productivity growth had halved, that household debt was as large as our GDP, and that we were suffering the worst trade deficit since 1697. But the very words "sixteen ninety seven" set a new and elevated tone to Treasury questions.

Business questions. The sacked shadow Leader of the House, Eric Forth, was a great advocate for and defender of the House of Commons. But I blame Mr Forth almost exclusively for the modernisation programme he so deplored. By various procedural ploys he kept the House up all hours in the first years of the New Labour Government. His facetious filibustering at 2am turned out to be the most powerful driving force behind the introduction of the "family friendly hours" he so despises. Such is political life, where one's efforts are so often rewarded by the opposite of whatever is intended.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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