The Sketch: These days, rules are more important than relationships

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The Independent Online

As PMQs started, the government front bench was half full. Or, according to government sources, "half empty". Time was, ministers would cram themselves in to be near the Dear Leader. Now they fear his touch will drain them of their strength and purpose.

David Cameron asked a string of supportive heir-to-Blair questions about Afghanistan and 7/7. Cunningly, he stopped at his fifth question, leaving the PM without his flag-waving peroration. However, I'm not sure we're so very Blairable any more; shouldn't the leader of the Tories be creating his own identity more vigorously?

Why doesn't he ask this: "The private sector is now spending 15 per cent of the NHS budget. It's working very well. Is there, in principle, any upper limit to the use of private companies, if the benefits to patients are still coming through?"

Because young Cameron seems to be losing the point that it's "praise for a purpose". The point is to cause an emetic effect in the Labour constitution so that backbenchers throw their leader up. It's not that difficult, after all, is it? If he's behaving like a Tory?

Old booby news. That is, new news about the old booby. Andrew Robathan (hated by the Speaker for his youth and glamour) stood up to ask about the Deputy Prime Minister and the Ministerial Code. The old fool stopped Robathan in mid-question saying the matter was sub-judice. This implies so many levels of misunderstanding it amounts to a mental disability. It's not that Michael Martin has a brain like a piece of black pudding, it's that he has no sense of his office as a transcendental source of parliamentary justice.

The retiring Clerk of the House was in front of the (surprisingly engaging) Modernisation Committee. Among his concerns were the following: the amount of legislation is far too high; language is getting far too convoluted; the use of the guillotine is often very hard to justify; and there is a programming Committee for Report Stages which is routinely disapplied.

Richard Shepherd revealed that the Criminal Justice and Police Bill 2001 only had its criminal justice part debated; Parliament did not consider the police part at all. "But the business managers deemed that it had been done and it was a lie." Extraordinarily interesting.

Greg Knight described life before the guillotine. "As a chief whip, my only concern was to get an end date for the Standing Committee." Tony Blair used to be very accommodating. He "would always allow the end date to be achieved provided there was enough debate on what the opposition considered controversial".

That is, relationships were more important than rules. Now that rules are more important, as Richard Shepherd pointed out, 10 groups of clauses weren't considered at all during the ID card debate.

Not considered at all! Ah Democracy, "the universal human value". © T "Bollocks" Blair.

sketch@simoncarr.co.uk

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