The Sketch: Fiddling, flipping and filching: what's a decent chap to do?

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The Independent Online

They couldn't get Lord Ashcroft to come in so they took it out on Hayden Phillips.

He had been the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and looked every inch of it. Wonderfully well-preserved, his complexion deepened from Pinot Noir to Burgundy to Ruby Port as the morning went on.

Gordon Prentice, lean and livid, led the tribunal like a latterday Robespierre. He was perfectly polite but suggested that Sir Hayden was a credulous, bumbling, time-serving, unreliable message boy. He did actually call him a message boy when he said, "You weren't a message boy." That's the way these insults work in committee.

And noting there had been no documentation on a certain point, Prentice accused him of lying. "Were you being economical with the truth?" was the way he phrased it. Along with "You MUST have known!" And "You swallowed the line of the Tory chief whip hook, line and sinker."

It was pretty brutal. I say that with admiration for Prentice's abilities and personal animus (his seat is a target of Ashcroft's millions). Poor old Sir Hayden was claiming that he hadn't been "clear on the distinction" between "resident for tax purposes" and being non-domiciled. It was 10 years ago, after all and things were different then.

In those days we believed a fellow when he said he gave "my clear and unequivocal assurance that I have decided to take up residence". These days we look at that sentence and with a decade of Tony Blair under our belts, all we can see are the loopholes.

Were you deceived, they asked time and again. Apart from reneging on his tax plans, was Lord Ashcroft the "working peer" he promised to be?

Prentice quoted his record in the Lords. Ashcroft had spoken once every two years, had never tabled an amendment and voted on 13 per cent of occasions. Is that what a working peer is and does?

Was Sir Hayden shocked? Was he surprised? "The answer is yes," he said, "but not very."

What a hammering the language has taken. Noble lords and honourable members. The things they have fiddled, flipped and filched. It's not the cynicism of the media that's produced all this.

At the end of the session, Tony Wright used the word "honour". He didn't quite put quote marks round it but he nudged the word as though it couldn't be used these days without irony.

He said to Sir Hayden: "You're the sort of chap who believes solemn and binding undertakings are to be adhered to." Yes, old fruit, and you wear a frock coat in the evening while you brush up your Latin grammar by gaslight.