It was only when Michael Portillo was half-way through answering the next question on rapid deployment (this is the man, after all, who can get a hundred telephone lines into SW1 at the drop of a hat), that Mr Clifton-Brown deployed himself very rapidly - but far too late - into his seat. The diminutive C-B, whose face, one of the least expressive in the House, usually fails to betray emotions such as love, hatred or comprehension, was clearly annoyed. One eye opened and one finger waggled, as he explained to a colleague why he had been delayed. My hit-and-miss lip-reading suggested a tale involving a policeman, a taxi-driver and Jerry Hayes.
Then, suddenly, Mr Clifton-Brown was on his feet again and shuffling at speed out of the Chamber. I counted. Thirty seconds later he appeared at the other end of the Chamber, behind the Speaker's chair, and with a sweet grin apologised profusely, telling her about the constable, the cabbie and the media star.
By now the two main parties were involved in a running verbal fist-fight about which of them would sell more British arms to dubious regimes - both claimed that they would. Leading for the Government was the odd dried- up figure of James Arbuthnot, Minister for Arms Procurement. He is a man whose desiccated reality bears so little resemblance to the handsome adolescent in the official photographs, that one can only assume that he is either very ill or very vain.
Or maybe, Dorian Gray-style, he is wearing the sins of the nation on his face, for as he claimed fantastic success for Britain's arms export industry (14 per cent of the world market in 1994, 20 per cent in 1995, and set to be "significantly higher") I couldn't help feeling deeply depressed, reminded of Satan's maxim from Paradise Lost that it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.
No such scruples would concern the Dickensian Cockney millionaire from Welwyn, David Evans. All Mr Evans's questions start as a roar and build to a sonic boom; this was no exception. Was the minister aware, he bellowed, that "the Ookrain 'ad more nookleer wa'eads than Bri'ain and France put togevver? Aaand any madman could buy them if he wanted?" Labour wits quipped back: "Have you got one, then?"
"Aaand," Mr Evans shrieked, "when my 'onrible friend [minister Soames] was fightin' for Queen and country in the 11th 'ussars, the member for Sedgefield and 12 of his colleagues were grubbin' arahnd Greenham Common in a T-shirt wiv legs and arms in the air, ready to give up!"
My mind's eye pictured the considerable bulk of Mr Soames, jammed into an armoured car (leaving precious little room for the driver or the gunner) riding to war against somebody or other (Mr Evans was not precise about who we were at war with at the time); while an abject Blair writhed in the Oxfordshire mud, wearing only a T-shirt. Mr Evans's imagery is so much more fun than red eyes and red tears, I thought, and no more untrue.Reuse content