The Sketch: Paul Boateng, the executive searching for a kind of dignity

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The Independent Online

The British constitution has its dignified parts and its executive parts.

The British constitution has its dignified parts and its executive parts.

The Chief Secretary for the Treasury, Paul Boateng, is supposed to be an executive part but is always auditioning for a dignified part. Perhaps he is the conceited part of the constitution. He attempts the large, slow manner of an actor playing some ancient potentate but only manages to look over-inflated, like a sex doll just before it bursts. How do I know that? There's no room for that here.

The opposition is in a terrible fix, you know. They can't win policy arguments, very often because the policy they are attacking used to be theirs. They say they'll cut waste, but the Government says they'll cut even more waste. And then blame the Tories for being the party of cuts. And then, in an acrobatic innovation, turn their own job cutting programme into a massive increase in public sector jobs. Thus, Oliver Letwin pointed out that the gross figure for 84,000 job reductions in the civil service turns into a net figure of a 250,000 increase.

Mr Boateng blandly replied: "The civil service is smaller today than it was in all but one year under the Conservatives." This contemptuous answer was technically correct and therefore more contemptible than any of the prime minister's claims about WMD. The Tories inherited about 750,000 civil servants and reduced them by about half. If speculation about Mr Boateng's future is correct, we shall sorely miss him.

Desmond Swayne again proved the value of Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. He was speaking to the Draft Vehicle Testing (Temporary Exemptions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. This is a very dull subject. The whips need real whips to get a quorum. And yet, poignantly, an ex-minister of transport was doing his correspondence at the back there: Stephen Byers, fallen like Lucifer.

Now: Mr Swayne is always greeted by lupine howls in the Commons. I thought this unfair. Nice looking fellow, good hair, concise manner. But in the close quarters of a standing committee, the truth leapt out blowing raspberries at us.

There is a three-month delay for getting an MOT in Northern Ireland. Mr Swayne rose and gave the tiny audience a performance to remember. Simon Callow playing Tony Blair urging an invasion of Iraq couldn't have given more passion to the subject.

Eyes bulging and blazing, Mr Swayne stared up into the carvings on the ceiling, there where the angels hover. He gripped himself in folded arms and, voice soaring, demanded MOT justice for this beleaguered province, and pledged his support to "dragging the administration of Northern Ireland out of the dark ages." He finished and slumped, amid applause, to his desk. His noble head finished up cradled in his arms. He twitched a little, perhaps dreaming of loping across the moors under the gibbous moon that presides over occasions such as these.