A rose by any other other cliched name

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The Independent Online
Yesterday was Princess Alexandra's Rose Day. Which I had never heard of before. This week is National Hospices Celebration Fortnight, and I must confess that I hadn't quite caught up with that either. But MPs knew all about them both, and a conservatory full of pink roses and large sunflowers decorated lapels on both sides.

When Harriet Harman took her place for health questions, sans fleur, an aide (spotting that Secretary of State Stephen Dorrell was floribund) quickly passed Hattie a bloom to fix to her chest before the television cameras came to rest upon her. No public relations advantage to either side and no disasters.

The dress battle over, sound-bite war came next. This is where Labour charges the Government with Sin of the Week (current favourites include incompetence and high taxation) and the Tories respond in kind (hypocrisy, no policy). Dorrell's Bane, according to Harman was red tape, which was eating up zquillions, leaving "children turned away from intensive care, patients waiting hours on trolleys" and thousands of cancelled operations. As she reached the end of her lachrymose catalogue, tears did indeed prick the eyes of some of her more sensitive colleagues. Of shame, perhaps.

The Tory benches were dancing to the tune of their own whips, but it was not always easy to discern what this was. One large, florid MP stood to the sound of cheers. It was James Hill, member for the Test division of Southampton and newly knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours for "political services".

He certainly did not get the old sword on the shoulder for his speech making. In an almost inaudible mutter he praised GP fund-holding because under it "every GP can run over fungus long before the lop-eared rabbit". Ministers ignored the lepid distraction and delivered their pre-planned sound-bite, which was on Labour's lack of clear policy.

The third area of contest was a negative one - trying not to upset groups of voters unnecessarily. This manifested itself in Mr Dorrell's response to what can only be described as a hospital pass from that prolific questioner, John Marshall (Con, Hendon South). He was waxing indignant again (he will get his gong for services to indignation) about beef. Was the minister aware that the highest incidence of CJD was in Austria (not Germany, true, but close), which should be made clear to people whether they ate beef, or were - in Mr Marshall's words - "stupid vegans".

Vegans may be stupid, but Mr Dorrell is not. He knows that there is no law which obliges Britain's growing Vegan population to vote Labour. "The honourable member", he replied deftly, "expresses his own view about vegans - or a particular sub-group of them". The sub-group, remember, was stupid vegans who, as Mr Dorrell had surmised, were those most likely - following Mr Marshall's intervention - to vote Tory.

Finally there was the "good bloke" competition. Largely a feature of Prime Minister's Question Time this is where party leaders associate themselves with those (usually recently deceased) whom the public loves.

Sir Michael Neubert (Con, Romford) invited Mr Major to reflect upon the life of Sir Fitzroy Maclean - soldier, explorer, spy, diplomat and author - who had just popped his clogs. Having searched his poetic soul for an appropriate response Mr Major came up with this. "Sir Fitzroy lived life to the full. He would regard that as a very satisfactory epitaph."

Nonsense. To have a life of extraordinary adventure summed up in one appalling cliche by a man who regards a return to Brixton as an act of almost Fiennesian bravery, would not have been well regarded by Sir Fitzroy. But then, unlike stupid vegans, Sir Fitzroy will not be casting his vote at the next election.

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