Quentin Letts

Who has the worst voice in parliament?


For the first time in more than two decades we are dog-less, and the house feels horribly empty. Our Patterdale terrier, Bonnie, led a long, vigorous life but her balance had gone and her breathing was heavy, so we called the vet. Patterdales are little imps and Bonnie was ‘known to the police’. I never discussed politics with her but she liked Lib Dems; that is, she liked biting them. A public footpath bisects our garden. Most ramblers escaped intact but Bonnie had a habit of nipping tall, grey-ponytailed men with walking poles. She nipped the vicar, too, tearing a cartoon-style square out of the seat of his chinos. The language! Despite that, we remain hopeful Bonnie is in doggy heaven. ‘St Peter won’t know what’s hit him,’ said my wife. ‘You mean St Peter won’t know what’s bit him,’ said our daughter Honor.

Sir Brian Langstaff’s vocal resonance lent force to his verdict on the infected-blood scandal. The Langstaff voice is baritone, not classically posh yet possessing a tone of unflappable command. As he started his speech at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster on Monday, I jotted in my notebook that he had something of the sentencing judge at the start of Ronnie Barker’s comedy Porridge. Yet it soon became evident Sir Brian’s voice was more interesting than that. Whereas the Porridge judge, acted by Barker himself, had a dry, mocking nasality, Sir Brian’s is a richer, phlegmier instrument that delivered his findings with natural composure. It helped that he was closely miked. This amplification meant the vast hall could hear him hitting the ‘h’ in ‘why’, something few English speakers nowadays bother to do. When he took a drink of water, the audience heard it gurgle down his drainpipes. His eccentric pronunciation of ‘donor’, which made almost a separate word of the second syllable, helped further to establish him as an otherworldly figure. Audibly, he was not part of the glottal-stoppy, anxious-to-meld tendency that dominates our political class. When my late father (b. 1928) said ‘white’ or ‘which’, it was almost as if he was blowing out a candle. That practice has nearly disappeared, erased by what phoneticians call the wine-whine merger; in Sir Brian’s precise, old-fashioned voice it could still be heard. The acclaim of the audience showed that this was popular.

Today’s public debate is a tinny assault on the ears. Who in parliament has a rich-gravy voice? Sir Geoffrey Cox, former attorney-general, does not say much these days but when he does it is with a vintage Lagonda’s growl. The MP for Clacton, a sometime actor called Watling, has a raffish rasp to match his Garrick club tie. George Galloway of the Workers party has a larynx lacquered by cigar smoke. In the Lords, the culture minister Lady Barran sounds agreeably ginny. Lady Finn, a Conservative ex-special adviser, could do a good karaoke version of Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wanderin’ Star’. But most public voices are flimsy. Rishi Sunak’s feels our pain. Sir Keir Starmer might as well be speaking through a snorkel. The Archbishop of Canterbury has the whine of a garden strimmer.

Westminster reporters travelled to Purfleet, Essex, to hear Sir Keir Snorkeller launch Labour’s new pledge card. One of the warm-up speakers was a poor fellow with terminal cancer who blamed the Tory-run NHS for his plight. This was not altogether newsworthy because the same chap made a similar speech at Labour’s party conference. If anything, he looked rather better now. Sir Keir spoke of himself in historical terms, evoking the memory of what he said was the three previous Labour leaders – Attlee, Wilson, Blair – to win office from opposition. The omission of Ramsay MacDonald, who did that twice for Labour in the 1920s, felt petty.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi died while returning from the Azerbaijan border, where he inspected a new dam and had his hand pumped, with alarming heartiness, by President Ilham Aliyev. Visits to Azerbaijan are not without hazard. Lord (George) Robertson, former defence secretary and Nato secretary-general, was once in Baku and found himself invited to an intimate ‘supper for two’ by Aliyev’s father Heydar, a sometime KGB man who ran the country for years. He and Aliyev Sr had just finished their nosebag when a 40-strong male-voice choir sprang out of the wings and blasted forth a medley of wig-lifting folk tunes. Then a Mata Hari singer appeared, her dress slit almost to the armpits. As she sang she climbed on to Aliyev’s knee, smothering him with kisses and dribbling her fingers over his chin. The Azerbaijan tough guy lapped it up, saying: ‘She is singing my late wife’s favourite song.’ George, son of an Islay policeman, made his excuses and left.