Agony and ecstasy of the emotionally challenged

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This week politicians were labelled "emotional illiterates" by psychotherapists. The most famous is Susie Orbach, author (I think) of Fear of Fat and Flying is a Feminist Issue, and who helped the Princess of Wales find herself by attending heart operations. MPs, however, as evidenced by their entrenched party stances and stage enmity, have real problems.

But suppose they didn't. Would environment questions yesterday - despite proximity to local elections - centre on the theme "how can we work together to make the operation of local councils a more satisfying experience for councillors and their constituents?"

No such luck. From first to last, various parties savaged each other's records in local government. The funding of Westminster Council (one of the few still in Conservative hands) was a "fix" and a "fiddle", said emotionally under-developed socialists; while Sir Paul Beresford - junior minister and former dentist (and therefore probably a sadist) - referred to "shenanigans" in Labour and LibDem bailiwicks. Barry Field (Con, Isle of Wight), who is not so much emotionally illiterate as emotionally incontinent, made a high-decibel rant in which the only words I could catch were "that lot ... wheurgh ... Liberals ... grargh ... health warning".

But, to be fair, there was a moment of Orbachian harmony, when James Clappison, on the government front bench, spoke about "high-access woodlands", including the "twelve community forests". New Labourites subsided into reveries about oak, ash and thorn co-existing in drug-free, low-crime, responsible togetherness. MPs smiled at each other.

And what about a therapeutic Prime Minister's Question-Time? "Is the Prime Minister truly happy?" "It has been a difficult week, but a visit to the operating theatre at Huntingdon General worked wonders".

Not a chance. John's government was presiding over a huge rise in crime, Tony's party was soft on criminals. Peter Luff (Worcester) and Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) punctuated Blair's contribution with yells, whoops and childish gestures. Watching therapists in the public gallery clucked their tongues in sympathy over the repressed pain on view.

Better things might have been expected from Labour MP Angela Eagle's 10-minute rule Bill on equal rights for part-time employees. Ms Eagle is a rising star but her modern image was belied by a traditional speech in which workers were "oppressed" and "exploited" and her primary historical references were to slavery, the workhouse and mills.

Opposing her was that clever pinched-face ideologue, Alan Duncan. Where Ms Eagle had plucked our heartstrings with her descriptions of downtrodden folk working out of garrets and cellars, a tearful Mr Duncan sought relief for the "smallest and most vulnerable businesses in the country". Labour could never understand this, he said, because "the only thing that they have ever run in their life is a bath!" What did the sponsors of the Bill know about the world of work? At which the florid ex-miner Ronnie Campbell, sitting next to Dennis Skinner on the bad-boys' bench, graphically indicated to Mr Duncan his horny hands, his sinewy limbs and the sweat of his brow.

Only when Ms Eagle stepped forward to present her Bill did its healing, consensual qualities become apparent. To Mr Duncan's embarrassment its ignorant sponsors were of all parties, including Roseanna Cunningham (SNP), Emma Nicholson (LibDem), Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid) ... and Tory Hugh Dykes. A defeated Mr Duncan slipped off to book a session with Susie.