A tale of too many men about the House

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The Independent Online
"Grrrr!" I said to the man next to me in the Press gallery, as he cordially wished me a Happy New Year. Happy New Year indeed! Welcome back to the Gothic fairyland of Lady Olga Maitland, environment questions with Frank Dobson versus John Gummer, and adjournment debates on Anglo- Maltese relationships.

Listen for the millionth time as Ribble rent-a-quote, Nigel Evans, invokes the satanic Labour trio of the social chapter, the minimum wage and Hecate, Eel-Goddess of the Lower Depths.

Watch as a uniformly short-bearded New Labourite ingratiates himself with his whips by stating that this, that, or the other is a "disgrace" or "obscenity", without once feeling any obligation to suggest a remedy.

Fortunately, the year's business kicked off with transport questions, which tends to attract a slightly better class of question-and-answer than other question-times. The ministers are decent, if dull, and the MPs inclined to raise local concerns about which they actually know something: their new by-pass, their airport extension, their railway's rolling-stock. And, of course, bicycles - which exert a particular fascination for New Labour backbenchers.

Clive Soley (Hammersmith) revealed that he took his life in his hands every time he rode from home to House. "I feel like a by-election waiting to happen," he told alarmed colleagues. You could see Opposition members (who are desperate for an election) planning invitations to Conservative MPs to join them on exciting two-wheel tours of Hyde Park Corner and the North Circular Road.

But even this sounds safer than travelling by London Underground, given who might be driving the trains. In the course of one of his obsequious compliments to ministers (this time on levels of investment in the tube), John Marshall (Hendon South) told the House that he spoke "as one who has actually been at the controls of one of the new trains".

Mr Marshall in sole charge of a mouth is bad enough, but im- agine boarding a Northern line train at Hendon and discovering - after travelling at breakneck speed for several miles through a dark and smelly tunnel - that you are five miles up the back passage of the Chief Whip. You'd want a refund.

But what really strikes me every time I return to the House after a recess, is the unrelenting maleness of the place. In the first hour of parliamentary time in 1997, three dozen men spoke - but only two women: Glenda Jackson and Speaker Betty.

This thought struck me hardest when I was scanning the three grey-clad ministers on the government front-bench. To the left and right were the rounded, crumpled figures of John Watts and John Bowis. And between these twin rotundities flopped the long, and slightly limp form of Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young. The whole living sculpture was like a stone-age depiction of a failing fertility god.

Can anything be done? Yes, apparently. The subject was raised later on of the lack of catering and other facilities available to those visiting the House - schoolchildren from the West country couldn't get orangeade after a long journey. But Peter Viggers (Conservative, Gosport), had the answer.

"Other countries with lesser parliamentary traditions than ours," he began - with effortless pomposity - "have museums associated with their parliaments."

Museums where guests and the public and other such hoi-polloi could go, rather than clog up the real thing. Perhaps it was time that Britain too, had both a Parliament and a parliamentary museum?

Goddammit, I thought, old Viggers is right! We've got the musem - now let's build the Parliament!