The Sketch: Clutching at Straw - the frontbench team at the bottom of the barrel

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The Independent Online

The absence of Jack Straw suddenly makes it obvious. It was quite a relief to realise it at Question Time yesterday. Yes, I now understand that the Foreign Office front bench is the worst in the Government. That's including Culture and the Department of Trade and Industry. Why is this a relief? It's no good for the country, but it's so much easier to sketch.

Six years of ministerial attrition has taken us down to the bottom third of the barrel. Imagine what the Government will look like half-way through its next term, when John Reid has a walking frame, David Miliband is Chancellor of the Exchequer and Kali Mountford is Minister for Europe, with Shaun Woodward as her PPS.

Denis McShane is the most senior of the current juniors. He addresses us through a bottle full of tonsils. The most patriotic thing about him is his teeth: they're like Oxo cubes. His manner on the front bench is unusual, even by the standards of the day. He has obviously paid a lot - but not quite enough - attention to it. Look: he is large, slow, governmental, almost imperial from the waist up... but stark naked from the waist down. Not a pretty sight, you think? You must be psychic.

He was asked twice about the seven sub-clauses we failed to get into the constitutional text in order to run our own asylum policy. Mr McShane evaded this so lazily it hardly counted as evasion.

Then: What was the difference between "ever closer union" (a phrase taken out of the constitution at our insistence) and "united ever more closely" (put back in despite our objections). "If he reads the record he'll see that the Prime Minister explained the point," Mr McShane replied. Were the Commons a court he'd be in jail for contempt.

The effort-to-reward ratio of describing Bill Rammell is too unfavourable.

We move on. Mike O'Brien is let off, because he was the plucky junior minister in the Home Office who stuck to the facts in the Hinduja affair. The one that led to the (second) downfall of Peter Mandelson.

Of course he was sacked as a result, but behaved so well on the back benches that he is back now as Minister for Diversity in the Foreign Office.

Ex-minister Kate Hoey has not behaved so well and remains on the back benches. In response to Chris Mullin's front bench plea for suggestions as to what to do about Zimbabwe, she gave him two good ones. Mr Mullin said there wasn't any point in trying. Under some pressure to be more useful he told the House that the Government was waiting for Mugabe's regime to collapse under the weight of its contradictions.

Chris Mullin is obviously clever, so we have to assume he isn't. It's true he has a clever, dinner party voice and while his answers are not lamentable (as I say, the Sketch is grateful for their inadequacy) they are genuinely pitiful.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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