The Sketch: The difficulties of herding politicians

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The Independent Online

There was a very sparse Labour attendance at Defra questions. So sparse, as it turned out, that the Speaker had to adjourn the sitting. They hadn't run out of questions, but of questioners.

This fortified the Speaker's enemies (not that I include myself in that gang of desperadoes): he had spent the morning cutting short important questions, not least on the subject of avian death flu. For instance, James Gray had been laying out official confusion over thousands of birds that land up in Britain in a way that even Margaret Beckett can't explain.

"Order," our national booby said. "Perhaps one day we will get a short supplementary. That would be very helpful to me." If only to get into the lunch room before the queue builds up.

He's a pleasant old party (vengeful, but pleasant). He's also popular. But a bigger brain will surely be welcome, when the time comes.

David Heath takes the prize for the week's most interesting question. The publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, had sent the scandalous text of Sir Christopher Meyer's book into the Cabinet Office for clearance. Gus O'Donnell, Mr Heath said, returned it with the words, "The Government has no comment to make on the book."

Mr Heath asked: "What's going on at the Cabinet Office?"

What indeed? It had approved a text describing the most exalted ranks of the Government as a collection of trivial, ill-briefed, under-powered, social and intellectual flyweights. Approval for publication must be read in conjunction with Permanent F****** Secretary Sir F****** Richard F****** Mottram's refusal to countenance Tony Blair's special adviser in the Department of Work and Pensions.

Thus, "What's going on at the Cabinet Office?" is, after years of humiliation, the revenge of the mandarins. And it's going very nicely. Geoff Hoon didn't phrase it quite like that. Actually, he didn't phrase it all. But we who read between the lines knew very well what he meant.

Other points of interest. It looked like the Tory side of Business Questions had been orchestrated. This is quite a feat; politicians are impossible to organise (have you tried herding cats?) Chris Grayling introduced the theme of Barmy Britain with a number of examples ("Winterval"; the woman reprimanded for describing a hit-and-run driver as "fat"; the police refusing to give out the name of a car vandal and blocking an insurance claim as a result). Several MPs took up the theme with their own examples.

One remarked that the spirit of his Christmas Committee in Beverly had been crushed by regulation - "it was suggested that portable handwashing facilities should follow the reindeers in case one of the children should touch one".

The thing was, they were there in numbers, especially the new intake. It was a sign of life; preparing the stage for the arrival of their new leader. And the best of barmy British luck!