The Sketch: They're most eloquent when they're silent. Especially the Speaker

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The speaker has been complaining about criticism from cabinet snobs (sic). And we thought he had guts. Yes, whatever the old banana's defects, none of us thought he was yellow. Next thing we'll discover is he's bent in the middle and dead at one end.

Parliamentary ancient Tam Dalyell is quoted as saying that Michael Martin was shaping up to be the best Speaker ever. Mr Dalyell sits on a special cushion in the House: it keeps his brains warm.

Here are the Speaker's virtues:

1) In good times, he is a nice old fruit, and presides over the antics in the Commons with gentle phrases such as: "That's no' nice" and "The minister's got enough to be going on with."

2) He is less unfair than he was, and very often when he speaks you can hear him.

3) He has made a landmark ruling. Opposition policy is not a matter for ministers, and that applies even to the Prime Minister. Thus, when Mr Blair starts on his usual dishonest pastiche of Tory policy, the Opposition can now bellow "Order! Order!"

The mounting criticism has nothing to do with the Speaker's origins. The Commons is the greatest meritocracy outside the trading floor of the Chicago Futures Exchange (if with very much less merit).

Defence questions began with a minute's silence for Princess Margaret. Our parliamentarians are at their most eloquent when they're not saying anything. Had there been 60 minutes of silence, everyone would have emerged with credit. But having nothing to say does not stop ministers. Lewis Moonie and Geoff Hoon were more than usually vacuous, but Mr Ingram was indescribable.

Hugh Robertson asked him what assessment had been made concerning the likelihood of the good guys regaining control of the diamond mines in Sierra Leone and Minister Ingram said: "


Liberal Democrat Bob Russell pointed out that last year there was a shortfall in Army numbers of 4,933. This year, there is a shortfall of 6,169.

Recruitment and retention strategy had failed, he suggested, and asked whether this was contributing to overstretch in the armed forces. Mr Ingram responded: "


The only thing that was said for certain was one word. Tam Dalyell had risen from his great cushion to ask with trademark brevity: "What was the latest trend in recruitment and retention?" Minister Ingram replied in one word: "Upward." To understand what that means, you must refer to Bob Russell's question.

When Mr Ingram says "upward" in the House of Commons that means "downward" to us in the sordid, politically excluded world of citizens and sketchwriters.