The Sketch: Simon Carr

In the Crack House of Commons, the junkies will miss a fix of Hague
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The Independent Online

Michael Portillo's first post-election promise – "I shall never return to the front bench!" – was broken almost immediately. Where was he, not 24 hours later? There on the front bench!

Stupid joke. Neither funny nor clever. It's not the time for jokes anyway. Here on the edge of the recess, a misty tinge of melancholy in the atmosphere, something almost autumnal in the mood, as Westminster's largest Tories turn fat and yellow and fall off the tree to decay into compost.

What merit can we salvage from all this?

We must admire Michael Ancram, the party chairman who oversaw the single worst party defeat in the history of general elections.

He made a genuine political discovery, a brilliant way of avoiding the sack. He stood for party leader. You have to resign your party position if you stand for party leader. This is the only reason Mr Ancram was not stripped to the skin, tied to the cart's tail and flogged by shrieking Tory women. The gambit deserves his name: the Ancram Exit. He ancrammed. He succeeded, but only ancrammatically.

What else? Michael Portillo. Gave his first really interesting performance in defeat, just 20 minutes after the result. A performance that was tender, almost. In sadness he seemed human. An overstatement, you say? You lack charity. And Hague. William Hague. He led the Conservative Party, you know. He experimented with politics as a young person.

It was exciting, dangerously exciting, but he thought he could control it. Of course, it ended up controlling him. He became remote from normal life. He spent all his time with politicians. He withered. His family tried to bring him back but the lure was too strong, the habit too hard to break.

Heroin addicts, so a heroin addict told me, don't grow emotionally while they're on the dope. Her theory was that growth is linked inextricably with pain, and heroin is the ultimate painkiller. So it is with politics: Mr Hague's long-term addiction has stunted and even prevented his social, emotional and cultural growth. It's why he never really connected, as junkies call it, except in the Crack House of Commons.

But how we shall miss him, in the press gallery, the shooting gallery, fixing together, every Wednesday afternoon.

He rose to a great cheer from his own side and maladroit jeering from Labour. It wasn't the time for jeering. The Prime Minister, whose mastery of mood is, broadly speaking, faultless, gave us his widest xylophone smile.

"We shall all miss his wit and humour," Mr Blair said. "Perhaps not me because I was the object of most of it." (General radiating glow).

Mr Hague returned the compliment: "Debating with him at the dispatch box has been fascinating, exciting and fun and from my point of view wholly unproductive." (Laughter. More laughter.) "I'm told I have now asked him 1,118 direct questions. (Laughter even on the Government front bench.) "No one has counted the answers. But it may not take very long."

In the matter of the AS-level debacle, Hague wanted to know which minister was to take responsibility.

Mr Blair answered: "All of us, collectively." Mr Hague nimbly observed that it seemed rather drastic for the entire Cabinet to resign over such a matter. He proceeded with a line of questioning that he summarised in his peroration.

No annual report. No minister to take responsibility for the AS fiasco. No public inquiry, despite all precedent, into foot-and-mouth. And a demand for more Prime Minister's Question Times.

"Wouldn't that be in the best interests of government, Parliament and public engagement in our political life!"

Would it? More PMQs? Junkies always want more junk. And seeing Mr Hague walking from the chamber, I found myself missing him and rubbing the inside of my forearm.

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