Lloyd Evans

Speak-easy

Speak-easy
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Make the chair smaller. Or sit on a box. John Bercow’s first overhaul of parliamentary structures should involve re-fitting the seat to accommodate his pint-sized proportions. He looked a little stranded up on his perch at PMQs today and at the end he had to be helped back down to the ground.

This was a decent enough start. His touch might be lighter but he has bundles of confidence in the house. A welcome change. The last chap, already I can barely remember his name, was the Speaker who couldn’t speak. Bercow can’t stop speaking. His justly praised oratorical skills would be perfect if he weren’t such an Orator when displaying them. At times he seemed to want to play the game rather than refereeing it. In a break with tradition he wore a plain academic gown. No gold or frills. Austere dignity was the signal. He looked a bit like Kevin Keegan’s younger brother receiving an honorary degree.

The day’s chief clash felt a like very dull old story. Cameron discovered Brown telling fibs, invited him to confess, was met with evasions. The End. The factoid in question was Brown’s boast last week that investment would rise every year until 2012. Cameron waved a book containing the Treasury’s figures and read out a list starting with 44 (billion) and ending in 26. Since 26 is less than 44 it’s clear Brown lied. It was also clear Brown wouldn’t admit it. (If you’ve started fibbing why give up?)

Brown responded with a puff of smoke about the government’s decision to ‘bring forward’ expenditure because of the recession. Then he reminded us that the Tories would cut spending by ‘ten percent’. Oh that. I’d almost forgotten.

Bercow butted in twice during Cameron’s questions. First he interrupted the PM in mid-fib and told everyone else to shut up and listen. Which they did for about three seconds. Then he tried to turn the volume down on the booming blond, Michael Fabricant. ‘You must calm yourself, Mr Fabricant. It’s not good for your health.’ This sounded prim. And a touch prepared.

The rule that PMQs must focus exclusively on government policy is one Bercow hasn’t quite mastered. He ticked off Labour MPs for reciting parrot-bites about the effect of ‘Tory cuts’ in their constituencies. But when Phil Wilson asked about the alignment of Tory MEPs with a gay-bashing Polish party, the question stood. And Brown was allowed to give a lengthy reply on this minor aspect of Conservative policy in another parliament altogether. Mind you, Brown even fluffed this one. He chastised Cameron for failing to form an alliance with the party of Silvio Sex-Machine Berlusconi. That cheered everyone up.

Bercow finished with some earnest disciplinary notes. Ministers mustn’t leak policy to the press. Opposition spokesmen should keep their questions brief. And he wants ‘an atmosphere of calm reasoned debate’. That hasn’t a prayer. Thank God. Parliament isn’t a book club. It’s a bear-pit and rightly so. ‘Calm’ and ‘reasoned’ also means airless and dull. No one will watch. If MPs want to ‘connect’ with the public their rhetorical thrusts have to connect with their opponents’ noses.