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As the oldest parliament yawned, the oldest civilisation erupted

2 February 2011

3:14 PM

2 February 2011

3:14 PM

One yawn every minute. That’s how PMQs felt today. Foreign affairs dominated the
session as Ed Miliband and the Prime Minister exchanged lofty words about the Cairo demonstrations and the spread of democracy around the world. Doubtless they felt they struck a suitably elevated
tone but to the viewers they came across as a pair of prep school smart-alecs trying to sound like great statesmen disposing of liberated peoples after the fall of empires. Egypt and Afghanistan
were both treated to a torrent of high-minded vacuities.

David Cameron found the demonstrations ‘incredibly moving.’ Ed Miliband was impressed by the sight of ‘hundreds of thousands of people facing overwhelming odds to ask for their
democratic rights.’ ‘I know that people prefer a bun-fight,’ said the Prime Minister, (meaning PMQs not Egypt), ‘but sometimes it’s better to have a serious
conversation.’ A burst of hear-hears should have greeted this pious tosh. But the mother of parliaments had already put her feet up and was enjoying a sneaky catnap. The clerks yawned. The
backbenchers dozed. Lady members twiddled their manicured thumbs. Ministers discreetly scratched their hair transplants.

Poor old Mr Speaker slumped in his chair like a pensioner watching the covers go on during Day Four of the Oval test. His eyelids drooped and he seemed to be dreaming of the glorious days of yore
when he used to leap up every two minutes and out-shout any member who dared to out-shout him. 

Cameron was unable to say anything of interest about Egypt just in case events overtook him. He asked for a ‘peaceful transition’ without getting into the specifics. So Miliband
shuffled the maps and turned his attention to Afghanistan. His recent awayday to Kabul has left him with a new-found zeal for a war that hasn’t much exercised him hitherto. The mystic east
can have this effect on a sheltered personality. If he’d travelled to Asia during his gap-year, instead of twiddling with his Rubik’s cube, he might have developed a less misty-eyed
attitude towards the subcontinent. He sounded rather like Princess Anne opening an orphanage when he told us of his ‘overwhelming sense of admiration’ for the troops. Nor did he deny us
the chance to share in his great sense of ‘humility’. People who boast about their humility have no humility. They have pride. But Ed was speaking for the country rather than himself so
this contradiction can be overlooked.

He next treated us to a strategic briefing from the heart of military operations. ‘The commanders told me,’ he said importantly, ‘that we are bringing real pressure on the
insurgency.’ Which sounds good. At the same time he stressed his ‘support for the timetable the government has set’. ‘Timetable’ means withdrawal by 2015. Possible
ambiguity there. We’re waging a war by pre-announcing our defeat. Is this a good plan? Go in hard with a general evacuation. That’ll show ‘em. The answer to the conundrum lies, as
Cameron pointed out, in the 310,000 troops and police being recruited from the local population. The exit-strategy is to detach the insurgents from Al-Quaeda and offer them a seat at the democratic
table. It’s the Good Friday Agreement with an Afghan complexion. Difference is, the IRA only had to give up the bullet. The Taleban need to unbuckle the suicide belt.

As soon as PMQs ended the BBC’s coverage flipped straight over to Tahrir Square where history was unfolding while parliament slept. It’s riveting stuff. As I write this the oldest
civilization in the western hemisphere is taking its first tentative steps towards membership of the European Union. Let’s hope they know what they’re doing. 

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