The Sketch: Duncan and Harman flirt while Bercow grumbles

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The Independent Online

Dapper Alan Duncan brings an air of the beau monde to the House. His brilliant cuffs and coiffure are dashingly out of place on a shadow Leader of the House. Harriet remarked on the watch given him, she said, by the Sultan of Brunei. And he returned the compliment by calling her a "gentle flower of the aristocracy". She protested, he twinkled. The House looked on indulgently. I suppressed a gulp of nausea.

John Bercow looked piqued, I thought, that his cosy relationship with the Leader of the House had been interrupted. He made an unhappy intervention arguing that MPs' second home mortgage interest and second home house furnishings should be equally paid by the taxpayer because many MPs hadn't been able "to inherit" their furniture. But it's rude to ask what John did in the class war (he was on the other side).

Let's not waste cynicism. It's a scarce resource and urgently needed elsewhere in the story.

On Wednesday, the PM had apparently made a climb down on MPs' expenses during PMQs. I didn't notice it. His words hadn't seemed to mean anything more or less than usual, I assumed they didn't mean anything at all. But in the huddle at the back of the gallery, I hear that spokespersons "clarified" his remark.

Yes, the PM and Harriet had originally wanted to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information Act – but a formidable internet campaign had mobilised opinion against the idea. Gordon was snapping sharply into action, seizing back the title of Labour's Ditherer-in-Chief.

The three-line whip to vote for opacity was turned into a four-line box to do the opposite. They are going to publish their receipts for the past five years (at a cost of £2m) but Harriet revealed (at the third time of asking) that she might very well have another go at keeping them back at some later date.

Gordon Prentice asked the only other awkward question – what about the capital gain on these London houses the taxpayer has bought? Or paid for? Married MP couples can get £800,000 worth of mortgage interest paid by the taxpayer. Should that public money be allowed to remain as private profit?

Alan Duncan laughed the question away. He had made a well-received witticism at Simon Hughes' expense and he had been lured into crossing the thin line that separates vanity from pomposity. Maybe he'll be able to find his way back.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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