A Transport question: can we go now?

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
A DEMOB-HAPPY House of Commons met for the last time before the summer recess to hear the new Minister of Transport, Dr John Reid, unveil the Government's roads review.

With suitcases packed for European beaches, some MPs were dressed as though they were Gatwick-bound as soon as the House rose. Douglas Hogg (C, Sleaford & North Hykeham) was in a green tweed jacket and grey flannels, while Bob Marshall-Andrews (Lab, Medway) wore a lightweight powder-blue suit ready for the airport lounge.

Dr Reid, who is popular on all sides, took the House by storm in a confident performance, having had 72 hours in his post to mug up on 147 decisions. He announced that building roads will not be the first option but that motorists would be helped by investment in road maintenance.

The Tory spokesman Gillian Shephard gave Dr Reid a generous welcome but her response, which began well, went on and on, incurring the wrath of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who flanked Dr Reid.

When Mrs Shephard came to her peroration "jams today and jams tomorrow", Mr Prescott reverted to his backbench hooligan days with sedentary comments: "Pathetic. What a load of rubbish. You've asked 115 questions."

Dr Reid said he would ignore the 110 "which were merely casting abuse". He reminded the Opposition that they had only built one bypass in 1996- 97. "One!" bellowed Mr Prescott. The minister said that the Tory programme of bypasses he inherited was a "fantasy football wish-list which were never planned or funded".

Dr Reid ended his exchange with Mrs Shephard clearly on top of his brief, earning a public backslap from Mr Prescott: "That's only after 72 hours in the job."

The minister then faced individual questions from about 30 backbenchers, from all sides, specific to their own constituencies.

Matthew Taylor (Truro & St Austell), the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, felt the cut in the bypass programme was Treasury cost-cutting rather than a conscious environmental policy. He drew groans from Mr Prescott when he said: "This statement is more Brown than Green."

Dr Reid shot back: "I presume they are as united on this as they are on other policies. I look forward to hearing the other six views", as he glowered at the remaining six MPs next to Mr Taylor.

The minister fielded dozens of questions ranging from the Bingley relief road, the Great Barford bypass through to the Winterbourne Stoke bypass and not forgetting the Heddon road improvement scheme. He must have spent the past three days like a rookie London taxi driver mugging up on his A-Z of street names. He was helped surreptitiously by Mr Prescott, who muttered the odd prompt in his ear, and if he had forgotten the odd detail he had the wit to fall back on the time-honoured but perfectly acceptable ministerial cop-out: "I will write to my Honourable Friend".

We got to the end but nearly lost our holidays when the government whip Robert Ainsworth was called upon by Madam Speaker. He sat tight, didn't move and said nothing. "Adjournment," she shrieked. "Move the adjournment." He finally cottoned on and lumbered to his feet. "I beg to move this House do now adjourn." Madam Speaker shot off like a bat out of hell and packed her bikini as MPs followed suit.

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