The Sketch: Simon Carr

Enforcer with the power of limp spaghetti and charm of a landfill site
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The Independent Online

There are those who describe it as a brilliant victory for the Liberal Democrats. The Sketch prefers to construe it as a terrific defeat for the Government's Chief Whip.

Whip is the wrong word for Hilary Armstrong. She has the strike power of overcooked spaghetti. She has the charm of a County Durham landfill. She is the living symbol of Tony Blair's contempt for his back bench.

The best that can be said for her – and it's quite a lot now I look at it – is that her husband makes quite a good living by privatising the NHS.

Just past midnight, the night before last, Paul Tyler, the other shadow Leader of the House, noticed that there was no government whip on the front bench.

He realised that the whips were trawling the slums, dives and speakeasies of the Commons to rustle up the vote to close the business in hand. It was a dead-of-night motion to deal with the anti-terror amendments that are coming in from the House of Lords next week. Backbenchers had started to dribble in, when Paul Tyler asked for a motion to be voted on immediately.

It was the modern version of I Spy Strangers. It was put to the House, and both the opposition parties shouted "Aye!"

The Labour backbenchers, headless, leaderless, stood blearily silent when invited to cry "No!". The motion was passed with bewildering suddenness.

The great hall was cleared of Hansard stenographers, of attendants, of the one odd (very odd when you think about it) member of the public. The microphones were turned off. Government MPs loitered uncertainly (this hadn't happened since 1945). Douglas Hogg behaved magnificently. But in what way we don't know.

The sitting was suspended while the Government tried to decide what to do. No decision was forthcoming. They couldn't move their closure because Mr Tyler's was a dilatory motion and one dilatory motion can't follow another. But you knew that already.

A brilliant procedural victory with the upshot of the debate being deferred to yesterday's prime time, instead of the graveyard of the night before. The other upshot is that Mrs Armstrong will be charged with the last capital offence in Britain, that of leaving the front bench bare of whips.

Now: well done Tony Wright. He asked the Prime Minister the last, loveliest and most lethal question of Prime Minister's Question Time. Did the Prime Minister know, he asked, of any organisation apart from the House of Commons, "where the people who are regulated have the ability to choose who regulates them."

He was referring to the treatment of Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary investigator into MPs' behaviour. She has been edged out of her job by a variety of parliamentary toads, including those big Scots frogs Tam Dalyell and the Speaker himself.

Tony Blair answered this question in an extraordinary way.

He said: "Um ..."

Shouts of laughter ensued. Normally, Tony Blair says: "That is precisely why!"

On this occasion, he said, for a fatal moment, nothing.

The House sits up to the buttocks in allegations of sleaze, dishonesty and improper payments. Its response has been to kick the investigator out of her job.

And Tony Blair, the "whiter than white" Prime Minister, says: "Um ..."

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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