QUENTIN LETTS on minister's icy response to jailbreak terror suspect

To see lofty Lord Chancellor stand is like watching someone unpack an anglepoise lamp: QUENTIN LETTS watches minister’s icy response to the jailbreak terror suspect scandal

Alex Chalk, the matinee idol whose current role is Lord Chancellor, shimmered into the chamber to make a statement about the Wandsworth prison escape. A jailbreak is awkward for any prisons minister. After the frivolity of recent political ‘scandals’, this felt refreshingly substantial.

When the Soviet spy George Blake hopped over the wall of Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, the home secretary Roy Jenkins had to tell the Commons. The debate ended in rancour (a noun Woy enjoyed saying). Sourest contributor, you may not be amazed to hear, was a certain Edward Heath, the Sir Keir Starmer of his day.

This time the Commons was ill-attended. It was Thursday and MPs had themselves bolted, either to lunch or to their breeze-wafted constituencies. Ladies and gentlemen, there may be an MP at large in your locality. There is no cause for alarm but if you see one, hold tight to your wallet.

The deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing, dropped her head to young Chalk to indicate his statement should begin. The minister rose and rose and continued to rise. Tall chap. To see him stand is like watching someone unpack an anglepoise lamp, or a sunflower resume the upright position after tying its shoelaces. Finally he was fully extended and gazed down at the house from such a height, it was a surprise he did not need an oxygen mask.

Following the escape of ‘a prisoner by the name of Daniel Abed Khalife’, he explained, Wandsworth prison ‘was put into a state of lockdown’. A prison in lockdown. How very conventional. Penal reformers in Hampstead will be hopping.

Alex Chalk (pictured), the matinee idol whose current role is Lord Chancellor, shimmered into the chamber to make a statement about the Wandsworth prison escape

We had no raging at the bunglers (Mr Barraclough from TV’s Porridge?) who failed to stop Daniel Khalife’s (pictured) kitchen-van escape

Mr Chalk, in slender tie and elegant suit, was flawlessly grave. There was no acidity. We had no raging at the bunglers (Mr Barraclough from TV’s Porridge?) who failed to stop Khalife’s kitchen-van escape. Some ministers would have named certain officials. Chalk is classier than that. He spoke softly with spotless enunciation. He was courteous, even while plainly seething. ‘Daniel Khalife will be found,’ he said with ice. ‘He will be made to face justice.’

READ MORE HERE: How ‘Iranian spy’ in prison kitchen uniform used makeshift straps to tie himself to bottom of delivery van after serving breakfast, before it was waved through HMP Wandsworth’s gates by ‘civilian staff’

Shabana Mahmood, the new shadow justice spokesman, shouted about ‘yet another example of Conservative mismanagement’. She repeated the word ‘crisis’ three times and yelled at Mr Chalk: ‘When will he get a grip?’ Odd to learn she is a barrister. Mr Chalk floated above her megaphoned clunkiness. During Ms Mahmood’s tirade her neighbour on the Labour front bench, Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) ate a yawn and made it last a long time. Well brought-up boy. Gives every mouthful numerous chews.

Amateur sleuths sounded off with theories. Mark Fletcher (Con, Bolsover) suggested Khalife may have had an accomplice. Mr Chalk could have said: ‘Doh, we never thought of that!’. Instead, with the most perfect neutrality, he said: ‘I hope he will not take it as a discourtesy when I say that nothing has occurred to him about lines of inquiry that has not occurred to me and my colleagues.’ Dame Diana Johnson (Lab, Hull North): ‘Was he surprised Khalife was allowed to work in the kitchens?’ Mr Chalk: ‘That is precisely a question that has occurred to me and that I want answered by the end of the week.’

Sarah Olney (Lib Dem) noted that Khalife had connections in her Richmond-on-Thames area and wondered – strike up the Jaws music – if he might return there. Mr Chalk told her to stop scaremongering her constituents but he did so, again, with such handsome manners that Mrs Olney smiled. His purring civility disarmed the house. You don’t heckle Cary Grant.

One troubling testimony came from Fleur Anderson (Lab, Putney). When she arrived to visit HMP Wandsworth in June, six staff were being taken off to hospital after being assaulted.

Then that daft old horse Barry Sheerman (Lab, Huddersfield) went off on one about the George Blake case, saying he supposed Mr Chalk was ‘very young indeed’ when Blake escaped. Not quite, Barry. He was not born until a decade later. Lord Chancellors are looking younger these days.

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