The Sketch: Commons is a great comfort to sleepy members when pensions crop up

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The Independent Online

Boing, boing, boing went John Bercow. Up sprang the Tory MP for Buckingham, eager to ask about absent fathers. Up he bounced a few minutes later, on benefit fraud. He was on his feet again about pensions credits. He was irrepressible. He was like Zebedee. An hour and a half later he was still popping up. But the Speaker was playing hard to get. He was pretending he hadn't noticed Mr Bercow. (He wanted this Jack firmly back in his box.)

Perhaps the Speaker's view was obscured by Andrew Selous - a 7ft 8inmedieval knight of a Tory who was sitting bang in front of Mr Bercow. Mr Selous could have walked straight out of a brass rubbing. Yesterday he kept overshadowing the chamber's pocket Disraeli.

Apart from the see-saw display of the tall Tory and the short Tory there was relatively little action in the Commons after lunch. But then it was pensions questions.

Tam Dalyell, the father of the House, was sound asleep, waking up briefly to pick his nose covertly. Andrew Dismore was snoring soundly too. Even Andrew Miller's orange fluorescent tie was not enough to jolt them awake. Or the Seventies-style light tan suit ensemble combo worn by the veteran Gerald Kaufman.

The pneumatically padded Commons benches were to blame. They were too comfortable. Hard church pews are more appropriate when the Work and Pensions Secretary, Andrew Smith, is at the dispatch box. Jeremy Corbyn, barely visible thanks to his camouflage green jacket, was having a lovely snooze until sparky Maria Eagle piped forth shrilly for the Government. "The figure he is quoting is a target, not a ceiling," she told a hapless Tory who was clearly unfamiliar with government jargon.

Then Siobhain McDonagh, a helpful-as-can-be Labour MP, stood up. Unlike some of her sleepier colleagues she had been paying attention.

"Can I bring my honourable friend's attention to the response of one of my very real constituents, not someone who has been made up at all?" she asked. This constituent, she said, thought getting the pension credit was "akin to the promised land".

Luckily Paul Farrelly, a Labour MP who should have been banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act, was there to puncture the air of self-congratulation. He asked a tricky question on single mothers who "become parents at too young an age". What were ministers going to do about them?

Just as things were livening up on the benefits front, in walked Jack Straw who, because Tony Blair was indisposed, got to be PM for a day. The stand-in looked a little nervous, adjusting his tie and fidgeting with his jacket buttons before making a statement on Europe. In front of him was an enormous pile of pamphlets, briefing notes and House of Commons reports.

One of them caused a frisson of excitement on the Tory benches. It was a little blue booklet by none other than Margaret Thatcher and had been written way back in 1983. The Foreign Secretary waved it at them. Then his sidekick Denis MacShane waved it at them again, for good measure.

Bill Cash and John Redwood, two Eurosceptic Thatcherite acolytes, looked cowed and awed. It was as if Mr Straw had just stumbled across the Holy Grail and offered them a drink.

marie.woolf@independent.co.uk

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