It was 'Hi' from Ed Balls...and 'Bye' from nearly everyone else

Just four Labour backbenchers were present at the start of business. This soon dwindled. The number fell to three. Another left. And then there was one: Dennis Skinner (Bolsover).

The day after the Queen's Speech was once a great occasion. MPs would try to be in early to reserve a good seat. But this Chamber, this Parliament, is as withered as Tiny Tim's club foot.

The Opposition side was reasonably well attended. Labour's benches, however, were a vast space of shiny, green leather. They were as empty as the stands at a second division county cricket match. In late September. In the rain. When no result is possible.

The Houses Of Parliament were virtually empty for a debate on the Queen's speech with Labour's seats in particular almost completely empty

The Houses Of Parliament were virtually empty for a debate on the Queen's speech with Labour's seats in particular almost completely empty

What made the no- show all the more remarkable was that it was the day for the 'schools and hospitals' part of the Queen's Speech debate.

Education and health were once the prime Labour policy areas.

Politicians, when standing for election, assure us they will be tireless on our behalf. Once elected, they are as rare in our national cockpit as osprey chicks.

So where were they yesterday? Plotting behind closed doors? Off doing some early Christmas shopping? Or applying for jobs?

David Heath, for the Lib Dems, was quick to note the shortage of personnel on the Labour side.

'Enthusiasm for the fantasy Queen's Speech is obviously shared by Labour Members,' he said, 'who are here in such great numbers today.' He was being sarcastic.

At that point in proceedings the only non-payroll-vote Labour MPs present were David Taylor (NW Leics), David Winnick ( Walsall N), Tom Watson (West Brom E) and Ann Cryer (Keighley).

The Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, opened the day by taking a few Business Questions. Ah well, you say, no wonder the place was empty! Who can bear to listen to Harriet's dead-haddock oratory? Nor was there much comfort when Ed Balls, Education Secretary, stood for the start of the main debate. His first word: 'Hi!'

Good grief. By this point there were admittedly a few more bodies on the benches. Mr Balls has a following in sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

People think it is worth keeping in with him, in case he becomes leader. But although they hung around long enough to hear Mr Balls speak, they did not seem particularly keen to make speeches themselves.

The form in Commons debates is normally for speeches to alternate between the Opposition and the Government sides.

Yesterday there were so few Labour MPs trying to catch the Speaker's eye that the Opposition kept having another turn.

Mr Balls teased the Conservatives on how little support they had in the recent by-election in Glasgow, claiming that at the start of the campaign they had only 95 enthusiasts. Not many, but a great deal more than Labour had in the Commons Chamber yesterday.

Before long Mr Balls himself had left the Chamber. Peter Bottomley (Con, Worthing W) had just begun his speech and Mr Balls showed what he thought of it by talking to a neighbour.

Mr Bottomley told him he should show better manners (fat chance, Peter - Balls is notorious for backchat). Mr Balls reacted to the Tory veteran's ticking-off by leaving the Chamber. Oh no! Another hole in the ranks.

'Where are the Labour Members?' asked David Evennett (Con, Bexleyheath and Crayford). 'They must think this Queen's Speech is inadequate.' Andrew Robathan (Con, Blaby) made much the same point, but for Mr Robathan there was added piquancy. He is a Tory Whip.

Yesterday's no-show was a bad blow for Labour Whips. It suggests they can not even raise a quorum.

Paul Goodman (Con, Wycombe), said that although Mr Balls had said 'Hi!', most MPs seemed to have said 'bye!' Graham Stuart (Con, Beverley and Holderness): 'They have all gone.'

This was not quite fair. Mr Skinner had appeared and sat there for the rest of the afternoon.

But as Mr Goodman noted, it was strange that not even all the members of the relevant select committees were attending. The House knocked off half an hour early. Which, by and large, was a relief to all.