So there we all were again. About twenty of us, Chairmen of Select Committees in the House of Commons, waiting for the final appearance before us of the Member for Sedgefield, as he will shortly be. (Some of us have vacancies on our Select Committees and were wondering whether this backbencher, with time on his hands, would like to join us.)
Soon he was there and he took his jacket off and hung it on the chair. “OK if I take my jacket off?” he asked, presenting us with a fait accompli. Some of his interrogators were already in jacketless mode, so the questions answered itself.
He picked up a cup of expensive coffee which someone had placed on his desk and eyed up the team. He looked like some Grandmaster, about to play simultaneous chess with twenty 8 Year olds.
In one of the episodes of Faulty Towers, Sybil is cross-questioning Basil Fawlty and, after one ineffective reply, she smiles. Basil implores her “No no, please, not that smile.” Gwyneth Dunwoody gave the Prime Minister one such smile before we started. Sadly, on this occasion, Gwyneth didn’t join us in the cross-examination, confining herself to the role of tricoteuse. (Whose head was to fall from the scaffold is a good question.)
Readers will know that I apply the Christian name test to these exchanges. If the interrogator gets the PM to use his Christian name in the reply, then this is regarded as a hit. “George, I am sorry you felt you had to ask me that question” is where one is trying to end up. Some times I have had to ask seven or eight questions to achieve the desired scale of irritation. This time it arrived with my warm-up question. Should I quit while I was ahead, and allow a colleague more questions? Or plough on with my planned killer questions. I pressed on. My cross-examination focussed on the English question and the injustice inflicted on we English by taxing us so heavily in order to fund services in Scotland not available down here. The Prime Minister did not see it quite like that. Any injustice perceived by the English was a price worth keeping to keep the Union together. I raised my eyebrows to register disbelief; the Prime Minister refreshed himself with some coffee, and started sizing up the next chessplayer.
Only the next day, after Gordon Brown’s flirtation with the Liberal Democrats, did I realise what I should have asked the Prime Minister. ”Why, on reflection, did you decide in 1997 not to invite the LibDems in your Government?” Then I could play his answer back to his successor, when he joins us for his first interview.