The Sketch: Untruths, mistakes, non-answers and shuffles: we don't stand a chance

There are many ways of not telling the truth, and Parliament provides a rich selection of them.
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The Independent Online

There's the Prime Minister's way. Waiting lists have got longer. Mr Blair explained why: the method of measuring them has changed. John Hayes quoted the Audit Commission, which insisted the same methodology had been used since 1996. Whether the PM's untruth is a lie or a mistake is no longer the point. The new loose way with the actuality matters because there's a price attached to it. As the "Failed Messiah" view gathers momentum, for every government lie, the City adds another little risk premium to government bids for private funds.

Then there's Margaret Beckett's approach. She has found a way of avoiding outright lies: she doesn't say anything at all. Asked about British beef not being allowed into France, or whether there will be new nuclear power stations, or whether the department needs a concordat with the Food Standards Agency to attack the illegal meat trade, she will say: "It's a very important issue that deserves to be addressed at the highest level to hammer out the process whereby we can deliver the outcomes in a practical way, that isn't pie in the sky to achieve the results that, I have to say, the previous government didn't give two hoots about in office." She was good at her petit-point when Leader of the House, but as a secretary of state, she's secretarial.

And look, here's Sir Richard Mottram, the Transport Permanent Secretary and Conductor of the Smiling Obsequies at the burial of Jo Moore. The Public Administration Committee failed entirely to wring the truth out of him. Asked whether Downing Street had been involved in the sacking of Jo Moore, he said: "The application of civil service procedures were solely due to me." That may mean Yes (Jo Moore wasn't a civil servant).

"So the press reports aren't true, that Mr Byers was prepared to fire Jo Moore, but Downing Street intervened on her behalf?" "There are two separate, overlapping issues here," Sir Richard said. "What is the political or other consequence of disposing of this special adviser was not something I could answer." I think that too means Yes.

In another exchange, Sir Richard gave himself away: "I'm not trying to shuffle things up, I'm trying to have a grown-up discussion about reality." No, that's not how Double Firsts discuss reality. He must have been trying to shuffle things up.

What had Martin Sixsmith done to make him leave the department? Leaks? Plots? Sir Richard explained: it was "Not that he'd done them, and not that he'd necessarily not done them." He presents an affable, self-deprecating, almost human figure (remember, he's not strictly a politician). And he charmed the committee; of course they failed to nail him.

"It's highly irregular for a permanent secretary not to be able to speak to his minister on a weekend?" "I did speak to him." "So when you are quoted as saying you couldn't speak to him, you –" And Sir Richard showed the tiniest flash of temperament: "Now we are into a pretty disgraceful way of discussing public business." The Tory quailed, failed, sailed on.

Someone said a Mr Grannatt was going to get involved. "He's not," Sir Richard said. "I don't know why he said that. I'll get back to you. I'm sure we can reconcile what we're both saying." He certainly can. We don't stand a chance, really.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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