The Sketch: When the Speaker stepped in to save his party leader

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First, the Religious Hatred debacle wasn't a defeat for the Prime Minister it was merely a defeat for the Chief Whip. It's amazing this excrescence has lasted so long on the front bench.

She was John Prescott's inferior once (a nastier remark than it sounds, I fear) in that abortive super-ministry they tried, and her intellectual defects were so pronounced that she was made Chief Whip. Now, with a perfectly serviceable majority at her disposal she pairs off her MPs, misadvises the PM to take the rest of the night off and loses the vote by one. This fancy southern arithmetic, as she might complain, how's she expected to understand it?

Now, I'm not one of those who call him No Substance Cameron (there's a class-A joke in there somewhere for Dennis Skinner, I merely pass on the raw materials). He started well, with the Government's defeat of the day before: "He can only do the right thing with Conservative support, and when he does the wrong thing he can't carry his own party." Then: "Every week I ask the Prime Minister about education and every week he says that he will stick to the Bill. But every weekend, I read about a climbdown..." This was surely the prelude to an interesting and even toxic summary of the Prime Minister's travails. However, he was suddenly interrupted by the Speaker. "Get away from the Chair!" Mr Speaker was growling indignantly, in the tones of someone admonishing a defecating dog at a tea party. "There is a whip shouting next to the Chair. This happens every Wednesday!" Then he went on (and on): "And do not shout when the Leader of the Opposition is speaking. That is not a whip's duty." This stinging rebuke provoked great merriment - so much so, in fact, that Cameron lost his way in the noise, sat down early and Blair was able to conclude a peroration about Conservative "dithering".

A draw is always a loss for the Opposition. The Speaker doesn't often get a chance to help his party quite so effectively.

NB: Stephen Byers made an unreserved apology to the House. It didn't sound like it. He has a way of saying "I apologise unreservedly" in a way that makes it clear he wasn't to blame for anything. He hadn't told a "lie" but he had been factually inaccurate in an entirely inconsequential way. He had told an "untruth". What's the difference between a lie and an untruth? It's a real difference, no doubt; the same as the difference between "I apologise unreservedly" and "I'm sorry".

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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