Simon Hoggart’s Sketch

I LOVE this man’s writing. This piece is one of his best…

Like an abandoned car rusting in a backyard, bits keep falling off this government. Every day it looks more ­decrepit and less roadworthy. Today Gordon Brown was trying, and so far ­failing, to rescue power ­sharing in Northern Ireland. ­Possibly the prime minister had decided it would be a good day to be away from ­Westminster, where more hubcaps were falling off. His place was taken by ­Harriet Harman, who ­flannelled ­desperately on his behalf at prime minister’s questions.

Meanwhile, Lord Goldsmith, Tony Blair’s attorney general, was at the ­Chilcot inquiry explaining how and why he had changed his mind about the legality of the Iraq war. It was a tricky job. It appears that he started out by ­giving the wrong answer – he thought the war would be illegal without another UN resolution. So, now and again ­someone took the cloth off his cage and asked if he had come to another view. Finally, just in time, he did.

He had been hurt. When he gave his first, “unwelcome” advice, there had been “Chinese whispers” against him from the “undergrowth” of political advisers.

Chinese whispers is the game in which everyone sits in a circle; someone whispers a message to the person on their left, who repeats it to the next person, until it comes back to the start, weirdly or hilariously altered.

Possibly what he meant was that the bracken-dwellers of No 10 had originally called his advice a “range of fine, bold analysis”, but the whispering process had altered it to “change your mind, Goldsmith”. Though I doubt it.

In any event, the sight of him wriggling around like a worm with attention deficit disorder as he tried to explain the switch was a delight for all connoisseurs of the inquiry.

Back in the Commons, William Hague was pressing Ms Harman on why Britain isn’t going to take on the banks in the same way as President Obama. Labour’s deputy leader is never happy with ­economics. She resembles a child ­learning to swim. She climbs in the water, thrashes about, then makes for the side of the pool where she clings, panting. Every time Hague asked what the government was going to do, she said it was “important that we all work together, internationally”.

Mr Hague pointed out that was the opposite of what they were doing. And Gordon Brown’s own solution, a ­transactions tax, had been rejected abroad and ridiculed by the governor of the Bank of England.

Ms Harman struggled, armbands ­flailing, to the safety of the tiles. “We must all work together to tackle the global economic crisis,” she repeated, spraying chlorine-scented water at Mr Hague. Next she tried a joke: “His [Hague’s] reversing is even worse than mine!”

This attempt at self-deprecation – the deputy leader has racked up £810 in motoring fines over six years – was received with some mild laughter. But there was embarrassment when a Tory asked about Tony Blair’s drive to become, in Lord Mandelson’s famous phrase, “filthy rich”.

Harman didn’t even try to answer. “What we have asked the equality panel to look at is how we make sure that we help social mobility …” The rest of her words were lost in hilarity. All we could see was a worrying stream of bubbles from the bottom of the pool.

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