The Sketch: The Wintertons have done nothing. Honest

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The Independent Online

When it comes up in Work and Pensions, the subject of housing benefit fraud, your eye immediately swings to fall on Ann Winterton MP. Ring ring! "It's Mrs Winterton's lawyer on line 1."

"Be aware that the Wintertons have not and never will be engaged in housing benefit fraud. Their arrangements are all within the rules, entirely legal, and if a little innovative for your taste, merely recompense them for the years of underpayment during which they have served the British people."

The husband-and-wife Wintertons were stars in the recent debate on MPs' allowances. They've been claiming parliamentary funds for living in their own house in London, paying rent to their children via a trust. It's all in order. The scheme has been cleared by the authorities. They've done nothing wrong. Their appearance and performance in the House manifest this and they speak out in their normal forthright way with an astonishing lack of embarrassment. But then what do they have to be embarrassed about?

Mrs Winterton felt perfectly able to criticise the Government for failing to stand up for "the most vulnerable section of our community". For sheer professional expertise I nominate her and her florid, bellowing husband for Backbenchers of the Year. If you try the same sort of arrangement, you will be nominated for five years in jail by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

Work and Pensions is fronted by James Purnell; this young minister has been nominated as contender for Labour leadership, following Gordon Brown's mysterious disappearance in the middle of a lift journey. Purnell has made what commentators call (dread phrase) "a thoughtful speech". He has taken up Tory welfare reform. He even said as a throwaway line yesterday "people don't have a right to a life on benefits".

There may be merit in any or all of this. But Purnell as Labour leader? I can't see it. He suffers very serious barriers to achieving great position. I can't forgive him for being 20 years younger than me, there's no excuse for that; but you might have other objections. Certainly, he lacks that important ability to shimmy past his listeners' defences, to surprise an audience with charm or intelligence. In yesterday's answers there were times when you couldn't tell whether he was reading or speaking extempore.

He's part of the machine, one of the modern breed of mannequin MPs who takes down clothes from the rack and tries them on to see how they're received. And we know now, don't we, that leadership is more than policy promotion (or we'd have the most popular prime minister in the world).

simon.carr@sketch.sc

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