Sell arms to fox-hunters; it's good for jobs

`Maybe people would watch political party conferences if they were presented as quiz shows'
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"MANY AN evening I have stood here at this bar..." said the man at the bar. "And never bought anyone a drink," said the lady with the orange hairdo and matching orange juice, to much laughter.

"Many an evening I have stood here at this bar," he started again, "and wondered what possible function a TV set could have in a pub. There it is in the corner, sound down, picture flickering. Nobody watching, nobody caring."

We all turned for a moment to look at the lonely TV in the corner. On it Jack Straw was waving one arm and shouting silently. We all looked away again.

"But I have finally cracked it," said the man at the bar. "All these evenings spent ignoring the TV are good practice for the big test, which is ignoring party political conferences!"

"You don't need practice to ignore a conference," said the orange lady. "You just ignore it."

Instinctively, we all turned to look at the TV again. The camera had pulled back now, and we could see some of Labour's top brass sitting behind a table, embarrassed, ill at ease.

"They look like contestants on some terrible daytime quiz programme," said the resident Welshman.

"Well, that's probably because they are contestants on a terrible daytime quiz programme," said the man with the dog. "It's just that the questions are a little unusual. `So, tell me, Mr Cook, how do you square your ethical foreign policy with arms sales to Indonesia?' "

"And now for five points, John Prescott," said the man at the bar, "can you tell us when your transport policy will consist of more than just slapping fines on Railtrack?"

"Are you or are you not going to ban fox-hunting?" said the orange lady.

There was a short pause. Fox-hunting is a delicate subject in the pub.

"I don't know why they go on about fox-hunting being cruel but don't ban battery chicken farms," said a man who hadn't said anything up till then. "Battery chicken farming is much crueller."

"Ah, but is it?" said the resident Welshman. "Is it really? We're always told it is, but how do we know?"

"Yes, it is," said the man. "Battery chicken farming is disgusting. I should know. I own a battery chicken farm." He drank up and left. There was a slightly stunned pause. We all looked at the TV. Mo Mowlam was answering questions on her specialist subject, Northern Ireland. She was floundering a bit.

"Maybe people would watch party conferences if they really were presented as quiz shows," said the orange lady. "Questions and answers and points and nail-biting finishes and time limits and everything. You might see blackboards outside pubs not saying `Tonight on Sky - Man Utd live' but saying `Labour Conference on now!' "

"You could have points deducted for giving false answers," said the man at the bar. "Have you noticed the way politicians use the same answers for different questions? The Government defends the arms trade because it provides jobs for Britain, but when fox-hunting people defend fox- hunting on the same grounds, it cuts no ice."

"There's your answer," said the man with the dog. "Sell arms to the fox- hunters. Keep the British arms industry going by equipping fox-hunts with modern weaponry."

The landlord rang his bell.

"Can't be time yet," said someone.

"It isn't," said the landlord. "That's the Forbidden Topic bell."

"What's that?" I said.

"New idea," said the landlord. "Certain topics of conversations are barred. There's a list up there."

I looked at the blackboard; on it was written: "This week's forbidden topics - fox-hunting, Ryder Cup, GM foods and Mrs Robertson's operations".

"What operations has Mrs Robertson had?" I asked.

The landlord rang his bell again.

"Out of order," he said.

"It's a bit like that at the party conferences," said the resident Welshman. "Certain topics you can't mention. This week, at the Labour conference, it's socialism, Ken Livingstone and... and..."

"Peter Mandelson," said someone.

"I have an announcement to make," said the landlord. "New topic going up on the Forbidden Topic board."

Slowly he wrote up "Party Conferences". We all cheered, and moved on to talk about the rain.