The Sketch: It's no fun to watch Brown making jokes

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown is in exuberant good spirits, he's no fun to watch any more. He's smiling, he's laughing, he's making jokes, he's laughing at his own jokes.

"They're making a lot of noise for such a small number of people," he said of the Tory presence in the chamber. "There's not quite 25 of them, I didn't think that number was allowed to meet in one place."

That was the Chancellor's reference to the administrative mechanism for changing the Tory leadership. That's where the action is, that's what gets Mr Brown going: Third World poverty, Aids deaths, child mortality, Tory leadership jokes. It takes his mind off Labour leadership jokes.

Now, there's a debt-relief programme pronounced Hippick and a new retail price index pronounced Hiccup. Michael Howard asked on Hippick and Gordon Brown answered on Hiccup. Both must have had their reasons for this as there are many domestic activities more urgent than Hippicking and more interesting than Hiccuping, but - and it probably has something to do with the leadership questions hanging over both their parties - they Hippicked and Hiccupped their uncontroversial way through, around and over the order paper.

It fell to Bob Spink, the MP for Castle Point, to introduce a theme that may underlie a Tory revival, if such a thing can be imagined. Mr Spink, blameless to the point of inconspicuousness, has one of the most peculiar names in the House. As a strong verb, its principal parts are both kinky and filthy (don't try and work that out if you're under 18). His question was followed up by the MP for Hertford & Stortford, Mr Mark Prisk - and you don't want to attempt that name after heavy drinking.

Mr Spink and Mr Prisk confronted Mr Brown's team with the fact that 40 per cent of pension benefits were means tested when the government changed. It has risen to 60 per cent and the target is 80 per cent - and Gordon Brown had campaigned on the promise to abolish means testing altogether. You find an inconsistency here? You have a vulgar mind.

The new Tory policy is to abolish means testing and raise the basic pension. This clears out the administrative clutter and renders the problem of comically low take-up obsolete. It's a very attractive policy so you can tell it's not a Tory one (they may be beyond caring).

Dawn Primarolo, the paymaster general, told the House that Tories wanted to take all the money away from pensioners. It's a rebuttal rather than a refutation. We'll be hearing it a lot more over the next year and a bit, I fear.