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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 20:23 GMT
EU debate unites rottweilers and kittens
Commons sketch
By Susan Hulme
BBC parliamentary correspondent

Ken Clarke and Bill Cash
Clarke and Cash cosied up on Europe for once
Foreign Secretary David Miliband was probably wise to decide to be abroad when MPs started debating Europe.

Quite a lot of us were wishing we had had the same foresight, after it took three hours before we'd even got through the opening speeches.

And, actually, they weren't even talking about Europe. They were talking about the amount of time they've got to talk about Europe.

Before that, believe it or not, they talked about how much time they'd have... to talk about how much time they'd have.... to talk about Europe.

No really - I'm serious... and very much looking forward to the next twelve days of debate.

It all took so long because MPs are absolutely furious about the way the government has divvied up the time for them to scrutinise the bill ratifying the Lisbon Treaty.

Squeak

Each day there will be four and a half hours to talk about vague areas such as "foreign affairs".

And in with a squeak at the end of the day is just an hour and a half for MPs to vote on anything that might actually change anything.

They feel this doesn't really give them the opportunity to crawl over the nitty-gritty of what the government's signed us up to.

So, every time Europe Minister Jim Murphy opened his mouth to try and get out another couple of words, he was interrupted by another cross MP.

Mr Murphy is thin to the point of cadaverous, and all this leaping up and down from the despatch box to let other people speak must have been putting an enormous strain on his slender frame.

After half an hour he revealed he had only got a quarter of the way down page one of his speech - with twelve more pages to go.

A prospect which was quite a strain on all of our frames.

Impossible

But from one angle the government's approach has been a remarkable success.

It has achieved what many thought impossible - it has united the Conservative Party over Europe.

For once passionate Europeans like Ken Clarke could embrace in friendship arch-Eurosceptics like Bill Cash.

It was a bit like one of those greetings cards with a cute picture of a rottweiler curled up with fluffy kitten.

I'm sure it would be bestseller in the House of Commons gift shop.

Because, after all, MPs were secretly loving the whole thing. Any debate that allows them to refer sagely to their standing orders and what it says on page nine of Erskine May, the parliamentary rule book, has an irresistible appeal to some of the old timers in the Commons.

There was even a suggestion that they should change the rules to allow flasks and sandwiches in the chamber to help them through.

Though, by day 12 of this, I fear we'll all be looking for something a bit stronger than tea in our flasks.

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