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Parliamentary Sketch: The Jewel and Anchor

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Prime Minister's Questions, 7 March 2012

It is, perhaps, a somewhat uncharitable thing to say of the House of Commons that the mood which descended upon it at Prime Minister's Questions, as it contemplated the likelihood that six British soldiers had been killed in an apparent landmine explosion in Afghanistan, seemed rather stifling. Of course, the House was sombre and respectful as the Prime Minister made a short statement and the Leader of the Opposition replied. However, it all felt like a sultry night at the end of Summer: pregnant and oppressive. One sensed the yearning for a storm to break, precipitating the sheer dancing-in-the deluge relief of free expression resumed.

There were portents. Mr Miliband, we noted, used up just two of his allocated questions on the matter, meaning that he was holding back two-thirds of his allocation for other things. A reassuring ratio. So we watched and waited for who it would be bold enough to prick the atmosphere.

The first distant dagger of lightning emanated from the Labour backbencher Vivendra Sharma who attempted to interest the Prime Minister in some off-message utterances from Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. Mr Cable's utterances can often induce pathological rage in the mildest of people, and Mr Cameron is certainly not that, but on this occasion he declined to be roused. Instead, he contented himself with the observation that he "obviously didn't agree" with his Business Secretary's opinion that his Government was as clueless about how to run the country as an emaciated vine weevil, or whatever it was that Mr Cable was supposed to have said. However, if Mr Sharma couldn't wind up the Prime Minister, that honour fell instead to Simon Hart, an example of that acquired delicacy, Welsh Raretory, who informed Mr Cameron that the NHS was falling to bits in his West Carmathen constituency.

It is a peculiar feature of the National Health Service, at least as far as Mr Cameron sees it, that what is fine, resilient and up for the cup in England, suddenly collapses into a pathetic, disorganised heap the moment one reaches the other side of the Severn Bridge. Should the Prime Minister be unlucky enough to sprain an ankle falling off Offa's Dyke, there is absolutely no question which direction he would demand the ambulance take him.

The reason, of course, is that the NHS in the Principality falls beneath the slatternly sway of a Labour administration in Cardiff, which has, Mr Cameron says, both cut its budget and shunned the enlightened path of Lansley. The Prime Minister had no difficulty at all emphathising with the picture of the sick hurling themselves off Carmarthen's cliffs, as conjured up by Mr Hart. His denunciation of Labour health policy in Wales also attracted the strong nodding support of Cheryl Gillan, the Principality's Secretary of State, who may be tempted to ask what the NHS over there has ever done for her constituents in Chesham and Amersham.

Eventually, back came Mr Miliband to use up his last four questions with a series of de hominem points concerning the allegedly iniquitous effects of the Government's tax and benefit reforms. Such questions, pointing up individual instances of human hardship, are invariably impossible to answer, which is why Mr Cameron, in the grand tradition of all his predecessors, declined to answer them. The Leader of the Opposition's hard-luck cases must rather content themselves with the knowledge that they are doing their bit for restoring the country to fiscal sanity.

Still, at least the House was back to full roar by then. Mr Speaker Bercow chided "the member for Brighton" for making what sounded like ape-like noises: maddeningly unspecific in the accusation this was however, since there are three of them. We can, perhaps, eliminate Caroline Lucas from our enquiries, since she is even less likely to display basic primate behaviour than sit among the Tories, which is where the Speaker was looking.

The source of Mr Bercow's crossness might be understandable. The subject in hand was the potential loss to higher earners of child benefit. There are few higher earners in the country who can claim to have up to 650 children in his care. Lord knows how much Big Brother Mrs B will have to do to make up the deficit if the Government's changes go through. No doubt similar thoughts of loss and opportunity were passing through the Speaker's mind as the Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard rose later to press the Prime Minister upon the point of banning wild circus animals.

Questions dispensed with, the House moved on to consider the controversial proposition that it should present a humble address to Her Majesty on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. This turned out to be a cue for an outbreak of mass obsequiousness, though none of it was surpassed by the Prime Minister's own kitsch offering that managed to describe the Queen as both an anchor and a diamond all in the space of the same short speech. One was bound to feel sorry for Mr Miliband who came next. Not only had the schmaltz store run dry by the time he got up to speak, he had to do so against the background of a cliff of grim-faced republicans: the Labour Party massed behind him.

Then we heard from the Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, who told a startled chamber that he had marked the Queen's sixty years on the throne by sending her the gift of an umbrella made in Nottingham. It also appeared to be uneasily the case from his remarks that Sir Peter has something of a crush on his monarch, which age may have sharpened rather than smothered. No doubt with her capacity to be both a jewel and a large lump of metal thrown into the sea, the Queen will find within herself the capacity to pardon her oldest Parliamentarian.