It had been billed as the main event, bigger even than the all British bout of Hayes vs Chisora. I am talking, of course, of the battle of the Health and Social Care Bill in the House of Commons last Tuesday. There was a sense of eager anticipation as the opponents stood at opposing sides of the arena, each bringing with him an overly large retinue of trainers to cheer and jeer on cue.
In the red (in name only) corner was Mr. Andy Burnham, whilst opposing him in the blue and yellow corner was the Transforming Health into Wealth Secretary, Mr. Andrew Lansley. In truth, the billing was all froth, the most eagerly awaited participant standing in the speaker’s corner was the referee, Mr. J Bercow. Speculation was rife on Tuesday that Bercow would unveil yet another of his long list of rule changes to the Queen’s rules of parliamentary pugilism. In hushed tones there were even whispers that Bercow’s latest move was not really reform but revolution, with a call that when asked a question a Minister would, wait for it … have to answer the actual question!
Panic was spreading across the government benches; Mr Clegg was white with rage. This correspondent can reveal that in an exclusive Westminster restaurant Clegg was heard to complain to an aide that a requirement to actually answer a question spelt the end to parliamentary politics as we know it. “What next?” he is reported to have opined, “Next Bercow will be telling us that we actually need to do what we said we’d do when those ‘job snobs’ elected us.” Revolution indeed.
And so it is that on Tuesday afternoon the bout began: Lansley vs. Burnham. It started quietly and, truth be told, to this correspondent it was not clear whether Burnham was jabbing or caressing his opponent. I’m all for watching a bit of foreplay on the small screen but come on gents, there’s a time and a place and this wasn’t it. But then Round 1 burst into life a couple of assertive jabs and then, out of nowhere came a southpaw’s haymaker: were the changes to the bill secured by the Deputy Prime Minister a “pre-agreed coalition choreography for the Deputy Prime Minister to save face?” The question in essence being: had Lansley been consulted on Clegg’s letter before it was issued. In a master-class of footwork Lansley ducked and weaved and sent a volley of punches into the empty space before him – but this was no act of desperation – by the time he had finished no-one could remember what the question was but had been forced to listen to a party political broadcast for the bill. Round 1 to Lansley. It is clear to me why the Conservatives keep putting Lansley in the ring he is a master of the evasive answer to which, to this correspondent, it seems most politicians aspire.
But then any pretence that this was an orderly affair was shattered when two of Burnham’s trainers, Ms Gisela Stuart and Mr John Healy, sought to turn the boxing match into an all-American wrestling extravagenza as they formed a tag team to ambush the unsuspecting Lansley. Was Lansley consulted on the letter? But before the Secretary of State for Turning Health to Wealth could compose himself he was hit with another question, or rather, the same question again: had the UK just been spun a lie? At which point proceedings descended into farce and it was mooted that the participants should continue the conversation in a parliamentary bar but, hearing Eric Joyce was not in the house, the red corner declined the invitation.
As is so often the case we, the viewing public, had been promised the world but Bercow let us down. A politician being asked a question and actually answering it is the stuff democracies are made of but alas, it was not to be. However, I don’t want this to be a cynical column on the way the sport is not played the way it used to be; I have a suggestion: If an offender persistently obfuscates on a question, then Mr Berkow should have the power to intervene and compel the offender to push one of two buttons before him:
I honestly can’t think of a disadvantage. Parliamentary sittings would be shorter, BBC Parliament would get a ratings spike, the UK public would actually be told what is happening in the corridors of power and, most importantly, politicans would actually start answering the bloody questions they were asked, not the ones they wished they were asked. So, how about it Andrew, did you sign off on Mr Clegg’s letter before it was sent? Remember now, it’s either a “yes” or “no”.
Getting an actual answer from Lansley. Now that would be an achievement of which Mr Bercow could be justly proud.