I'm sorry to say my eyeballs did a fruit-machine swivel

Last updated at 17:42 18 March 2005

Rather a draining day. First came the ordeal of Scottish Questions at the Commons, when members of the 'Scots Raj' (as Jeremy Paxman calls it) seize control of the Chamber for half an hour to scowl at one another like so many wasp bites.

Then came a summons to both the Labour and Tory campaign HQs, to hear pre-Budget propaganda pitches from their top operatives.

Then back to the Commons for a cup of tea to try to work out who was telling porkies and to wonder at the energy politicians expend on such ephemeral, lifewasting displays.

Scottish Questions was the normal bowl of cold porridge. From the moment a stiff-necked Ann McKechin (Lab, Maryhill) started blethering about 'the take-up of flexible working time parental rights in Scotland', to be answered by a grandmotherly minister called McGuire, a frightful ennui took hold. Mrs McGuire had little to say for herself. Do we really need to pay the salaries of such people?

A blameless old boy called Tynan (Lab, Hamilton South) vented worries about wind farms in Scotland. Wind power? Given the gusts blowing around the Chamber yesterday it's amazing that wind turbines in the Highlands don't take off and fly towards Iceland, they're rotating so fast.

By the time Alex Salmond, the Scots Nat leader, started crackling about electricity grid arrangements in Scotland, only to be gently unplugged by the skilful Secretary of State, Alistair Darling, it was a job to remind oneself that this was Britain's national Parliament, not some clan council in Kirkcudbrightshire.

Down at the Labour Party HQ Alan Milburn was in the pink - and the purple, and the crushed raspberry. They have gone in for one of those space-age, multi-tone backdrops which apparently look good on telly. If my wife ever got to wash Aston Villa's home kit these are the colours it might emerge from the spin dryer.

Mr Milburn was in charge of the news conference and eagerly attacked the Tories while also making claims about how wonderful Gordon Brown had been.

Not that he chose to single out Mr Brown for praise. He talked instead about the economic achievements of the Labour Party. To his side sat the Pensions Secretary, Alan Johnson, keeping his powder dry.

What a bundle of fidgets Mr Milburn has become. He was always prone to pulling the occasional funny face, but yesterday he was in overdrive, like a child who has ingested too much aspartame in fizzy drinks.

He flicked a ballpoint pen around in his hands, made his eyes bulge, fingered his silvery tie, tweaked his neck, pulled up his left knee with both hands as though to stretch his hamstrings, and kept pointing at the back wall. Mr Johnson, by contrast, was the model of composure. Patricia Hewitt, Women's Minister and keen feminist, had been expected. With abortion a big topic of the day, she would have faced plenty of questions.

But Miss Hewitt did not appear, her place being taken by a Liverpudlian MP, Jane Kennedy. Perhaps unlike Miss Hewitt, she could be relied on to be moderate on abortion and not sound too insistently pro-choice.

Our final port of call was the Tories' head office, where Michael Howard posed alongside the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, who always makes him look lean and tall.

Mr Letwin spoke for most of the time about Tory spending-cut plans. Things became complicated. Really, really complicated. It was like listening to the plot of a high Prussian opera. For the first few moments everything seemed routine, but then layers of intrigue and detail started to accrue, and I'm sorry to say my eyeballs did a fruit-machine swivel.

Mr Howard repeated one of his favourite statistics - that the civil service is now bigger than Sheffield. Yet he never says what size of city or town or village he wants the civil service to be. Should it be the size of Milton Keynes? Hoddesdon? Or maybe Ambridge. Now there's a vote-winner.

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