Comic duo way off target on question of devolution

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With Michael Portillo away either banning lethal weapons, or selling them (or both), defence questions in the House were fielded by the comic duo of Arbuthnot and Soames.

Ostensibly James Arbuthnot is the straight man. Heir presumptive to a baronetcy, and a guitar player, his main role is to attack Labour for being soft on defence. This he does with the absolute minimum of vocal inflection, rhetorical flourish, or humour. He is a party election broadcast as delivered by the speaking clock: "At the first stroke Labour is a party we know we cannot trust on defence."

What establishes Mr Arbuthnot as an amusing character is the declaration in the gravest monotone of preposterous statements. Yesterday, for instance, he attributed to Labour a Transport & General Workers' Union policy which, he droned, would mean "a cut of pounds 18bn in the defence budget. We wouldn't be able to afford any armed forces at all, but would have to depend on civilians".

In your dreams, James. For opposite him on Labour's front bench was as blood-curdling a group of belligerent middle-aged men as can be gathered together outside the Ulster marching season. In Dr John Reid (Motherwell North), John Spellar (Warley West) and Paul Murphy (Torfaen) New Labour has gathered to speak for it on defence a collection of small Celtic pugilists and Cockney bruisers - the sort who like to headbutt much larger chaps outside pubs at closing time. This group's concept of Labour defence is gleaned from its Israeli counterparts. Talk peace, but if anyone messes with you, take out their grandmothers.

Far from cutting defence their every instinct is to spend more on it. They love it - the planes, tanks, and marines. They can't wait until it's their turn to send the SAS into some desert or other, or be photographed with their balding bonces poking out of the hatch of a Challenger. Liberated from that dark period of pacifism, when everyone was forced to talk about "weapons of mass destruction" and "ban the bomb", they are now free to extol the unique virtues of Britain's military.

This led to an odd kind of symmetry in the House. Labour would attack the Government for cutting the Navy, the Army, RAF flying instructors etc, and Mr Arbuthnot would reply by accusing Labour of wanting to cut them even more. One rather longed for some old Footian (New Roy Hattersley, perhaps?) to stand up and applaud.

I shouldn't have worried. To my relief rode the other half of the incumbent comedy act, Nicholas Soames. It started when former Scottish miners' leader Eric Clarke (Lab, Midlothian) asked a regressive question about the role of the Navy. In his mind's eye he could still see Britain's iron ramparts, riding the High Seas, fuelled by Scottish coal.

Mr Soames, a man of intuition, understood Mr Clarke's romanticism. The honourable gentleman, he said was "caught in the wonderful time-warp of Midlothian". Up arose the formidable figure of Tam Dalyell, MP for neighbouring Linlithgow. What did Soames of Midlothian know? Specifically, "can he name one town in the county?"

There was a pause as Mr Soames scanned the recesses of his memory for a file marked Midlothian: towns of - and failed to find it. But he has been here before, and has a strategy. "What I know about Midlothian can be written on the back of a very large postage stamp," he declared. "Except for the Midlothian question, which we are all waiting to hear the answer to."

There was a friendly roar. The famous interrogation (concerning Scottish devolution) was, of course, actually the West Lothian question. Unblushingly Mr Soames replied that the two Lothians couldn't be that far apart. Which, if you think about it, coming from a defence minister, is an uncomfortable answer for neighbours of, say, Libya or Iraq.