Those who tune in to the Parliament Channel at 11.30 on a Thursday will see the Leader of the House answering questions for between 45 minutes and an hour on any issue under the sun. As long as an Honourable Member asks me for a debate on the matter, he or she can raise whatever subject they like. Last week, I was asked about Peter Mandelson’s book, the Maldives, the War in Afghanistan, the European Arrest Warrant, crime statistics and wheel-clamping – and about 30 other subjects as well.
To do justice to these questions requires an encyclopaedic knowledge which I readily confess I do not have. It is like being in a pub quiz, but without a team to help or the time to recall – or like being on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, with no friends to phone or audience to ask. Yes, I have a red folder with me which has the answers to some of the questions, but finding the right page takes too long, and reading out the answer is like cheating in an exam.
The questions, in theory, alternate between the aggressive – from the opposition benches – to the supportive, from those behind me. But this is not always the case - friendly fire is not unknown.
As in cricket, some balls are best left unplayed – leaving them to sail past the off-stump. If you play them, you might get caught. Others, you just have to keep out of the wicket. Every now and then, there is the opportunity for a quick single – but not so far any sixes. But even if you score a single after the sixth ball of the over, you are still facing the bowling.
This exchange is now off air for some six weeks, as I announced at the last session that the House would rise next Tuesday for the Summer recess, which I will have to spend revising on the European Arrest Warrant and reading Peter Mandelson’s book
It is a frustrating time for those asking the questions. After I have announced the business in the House for the next two weeks, they ask for a debate on a specific in that time, when I have just indicated it will not take place.
It is as if the chef in an expensive restaurant comes to the table as the guests arrive, and announces what is available “As an appetizer, we have Questions to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, an assortment of crudités, brushed with piquant Maude sauce; as a main course, a debate on the Common Fisheries Policy, freshly caught within our quota and served with a Greek salad on a base of euros. As a pudding, I recommend a provocative debate on the BBC Licence fee. All for £145.50. Coffee is served in the Members Smoking Room.”
And then the guests ask for food which is out of stock, or out of season.