Four wheels good, two wheels better

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The Independent Online
In the 1790s the two main protagonists in British politics not only disagreed with each other about things like war, peace, Ireland and the French Revolution, but they also represented two entirely different physical types. As portrayed by the cartoonist Gillray, Charles James Fox, the radical Whig, was dark-haired, thickset, passionate and indiscreet. His opponent, William Pitt the Younger, was mousy, thin, elegant, aristocratic and detached.

Two hundred years on, and the clashes between Clare Short, Labour's transport spokeswoman, and the Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young, bring the Gillray pictures to mind. Short is Fox, minus all the effeminate lacy frills - Young, looking like Charles Hawtrey on stilts, could be a rather warmer Pitt.

And on the benches behind them sit the successors of the two traditions; the patrician and the yeoman - each characterised by different sets of interests and recreations.

As we know from all the recent scandals, the Conservatives are little changed from their Tory forebears. Their pastimes are shooting, shagging and bragging. The only real exercise they take is when killing animals or committing adultery.

New Labour, however, is the party of Health and Efficiency. Labour MPs' recreations read like the activities board at a health farm. They are in a constant flurry of fellwalking, mountain climbing and cycling - all with their families in tow.

Lady Olga Maitland (Con, Sutton and Cheam), personified this difference when she urged transport minister Steve Norris not to introduce tolls to enter the capital by car. Her ostensible reason was the cost to her constituents when commuting. But a more plausible explanation was her fear that, every time her chauffeur braked sharply at a toll-booth, she would be in danger of spilling her Pimms.

By contrast each Labour member who was called spoke out for the values of community and exercise, as against those of enervation and excess. Among those participating were Andrew Bennett ("walking"), Greg Pope ("walking") and Jon Owen Jones (the sinister "walking, family"). Best of all was Labour's Anne Campbell (an exhausting "jogging, tennis, mountain- walking"), who insisted that Mr Norris congratulate companies in her Cambridge constituency for encouraging nearly all their employees to get on their bikes.Capitulating, Mr Norris revealed that he was himself a recent convert to the joys of two wheels.

Did this impress the Tory, Toby Jessel (Twickenham)? It did not. "Well, I'm not a convert," he grumped. His gripe was with the danger presented by "people who whizz along noiselessly on their cycles from behind". And you can well believe that, returning from a good lunch at the Garrick, say, one might not be in fantastic shape to avoid the perils of phantom pedallers. Mr Jessel therefore demanded the return of "good, old-fashioned bicycle bells". That way a chap may stand a chance.

Few Labour members, however, embody more completely the traditions of Cobbett's rides and Morris's rambles than our pal, Denis MacShane (recreations? You've guessed it: "family, walking"). Speaking up for cyclists, Denis was angry about the conditions around the House of Commons for "those of us who want to come with our trousers tucked into our socks. Only last week I was knocked off opposite St Stephen's entrance". Which illustrates the difference between the parties perfectly. Can you imagine the consternation in the Tory whips' office had David Mellor uttered those words? Or what Gillray would have made of it?