The Sketch: The Opposition ran Peter Hain ragged - this was public service at its best

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The Independent Online

Is it an outrage? Is it a contempt of Parliament? Is it a diversionary action to take our minds off absent WMD? Is it a media-driven storm in a Whitehall teacup which will calm down as soon as we've found something else to occupy our tiny minds? Is it none of the above?

The answer to all these questions, especially the last one, is yes. The abolition of the lord chancellorship fulfils many functions, none of which matters to anyone except the Lord Chancellor. It was a bugger's muddle for the best part of a thousand years but it worked perfectly well, in that British sort of way, even when the conflicts of interest became comically obvious, which, thanks to Derry Irvine, they frequently did.

Now, in some covert turf battle, the lord chancellorship was abolished, then reinstated, then given 18 months to be abolished again. The Wales and Scotland offices have been given half-time ministers, and the Scotland Office appeared in yesterday's order paper as "the former Scotland Office". One bugger's muddle has been replaced with a modernised, reformed, more transparent and accountable muddle with 50 per cent more buggery. It's the third way.

"As the Scotland Office website now reads," Eric Forth said, to Tory joy, "this site is now under redevelopment."

Gillian Shepherd put her finger on the polemical point when she said: "The one thing the Government has complete control over, it has botched. If it can't manage a reshuffle, it can't run the country."

There was one good thing at least. Peter Hain made a really lamentable debut as the new Leader of the House ("Part-time leader" as the Tories invariably interject - he's also the minister for Wales). Ill-humoured, bad-tempered and sour, he began by describing Eric Forth's delightful speech as "an exercise in self-inflated bombast". That was quite uncalled for. He described the Opposition as "grinning idiots". That's not what the Leader of the House is supposed to do. He accused his attackers of his own party's most obvious fault. The only thing they were interested in, he said, was patronage (remember the Prime Minister's old flatmate has taken over one of Britain's most senior jobs from the Prime Minister's old pupil master).

When John Bercow said with a succinctness that usually eludes him: "A chronic speech from a discredited minister," there was a sting in the words that parliamentary abuse doesn't normally deliver.

The cosy relationship between the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader has entirely evaporated. The new (part-time) Leader of the House has sided firmly with the executive, and he was punished for it. The interjections on all sides ran him ragged, destroyed his rhythm and rendered whatever argument he had to make inaudible. This was public service at its best.

The Tories more or less agree with everything that's been done but they do seem almost genuinely upset at the way it's been done. No doubt the Prime Minister will set them all straight today when he makes a statement on the situation.

NB: Huw Irranca-Davies made us laugh by saying with more truth than he knew: "Workers in the Welsh Office can continue to sleep safe in their jobs."