Quentin Letts: Yesterday in Parliament


Last updated at 10:30 26 May 2006

Big statement on pensions. Government frontbenchers such as Kim Howells and Hilary Armstrong frowned hard, hoping to show that they understood what was being said.

Backbenchers stared into oblivion, many of them baffled. The Speaker was so overcome by it all that he left the Chamber, his puir wee brain giving off the faint aroma of over-heated Scalextric.

Afterwards I walked out of the gallery to hear a senior official from the Department of Pensions tell reporters: "Look, you've got to remember I'm not an expert at pensions." That's reassuring! Never make the mistake of believing that the great beings of Whitehall and Westminster understand maths any more than does the average Weakest Link contestant.

Let me admit, too, that I scored a U grade (U for 'unclassified', or 'useless') in my Advanced Maths O-level. My maths master, Mr Chick, once passed my prep round the entire class to show other pupils exactly how NOT to answer the questions. He did so with his little finger held away from the exercise book at an angle, in disgust. So this pensions policy of the Government was no more clear to me than the average pane of frosted lavatory glass.

From what one could gather, however, Pensions Secretary John Hutton made a good fist of his big day. He spoke in a staccato manner which possibly made him sound a little cross but also conveyed a robotic intelligence in the manner of Prof Stephen Hawking's voicebox. Hon Members on all sides congratulated Mr Hutton on his Statement.

Only a year or so ago Mr Hutton looked unwell, a frail man who had maybe reached the peak of his

political career. Now he is one of the few Cabinet ministers who seems to be on top of his department.

If he maintains this form he could yet challenge Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Gordon Brown government. Mr Brown was in the Chamber yesterday to hear the Statement.

Philip Hammond, for the Tories, tried to lean nonchalantly against the despatch box but he was less obviously successful in this game of political Call My Bluff.

Mr Hammond projected a less donnish assurance than his Lib-Dem counterpart, David Laws. Labour MPs tried to put off Mr Laws by jeering and telling him he was talking for too long. Deputy Speaker Michael Lord put them smartly in their place.

Mr Hutton, incidentally, said that "no one over the age of 47 will be affected" by yesterday's announcement. He should perhaps have declared an interest, given that he himself is 51. Mr Hammond is 50. Mr Laws is 40. Sir Menzies Campbell is 900.

Talking of declaring interests, why do MPs who are not have to declare a interest when they merits of the Human Rights Act which has brought the legal trade so much business?

At Question Time yesterday the Solicitor General, Mike O'Brien, spoke at length about what a marvellous piece of work the HRA is (his praise was in contrast to more critical remarks made recently by Tony Blair, for political reasons).

Mr O'Brien is a lawyer. As long as we have politics run by lawyers it is most unlikely we will be shot of that wretched Act.

The day was also notable for a fetching outfit worn by Sarah Teather, the LibDem education spokesman who is making marked improvements in her interventions (she has discovered brevity, which always helps).

I will no doubt be assailed for sexism for saying this, but young Miss Teather's top showed off a surprising amount of cleavage.

Frisky Boris Johnson, an Education frontbencher for the Tories, was unsighted, which was probably just as well. But Jack Straw, the new Leader of the House, was ideally positioned. He wandered into the Chamber towards the end of Question Time and did a marvellous double-take the moment he copped Miss Teather's attire.

Labour colleagues tried to engage Mr Straw in conversation. Momentarily he turned towards them. But repeatedly his gawping jaw swivelled back to the direction of the pneumatic Teather.

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