Gummer's line put out to grass

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Usually at Prime Minister's Question Time, odd secretaries of state or other hangers-on are inexplicably seated close to the top man. What are X and Y doing there, the observer wonders. The answer is that - like popcorn cartons and Pepsi cans at a cinema - they are left over from an earlier performance; the detritus of a ministerial questions session just ended.

Yesterday when questions to the Secretary of State for the Environment and his team finished, the flotsam consisted of the Kiwi dentist and junior minister, Sir Paul Beresford, who found himself rubbing flanks with the PM. Where then was his boss . . . John Selwyn Gummer? Only five minutes earlier his domed head, pale face and tight little mouth had graced the front bench. Displaying that absolute certainty that once so memorably characterised his assurances about beef, he had been praising his own policies on the red squirrel. I blinked - and he had gone.

It was planned that way, of course. Mr Major's job - blaming Labour for the beef crisis - was going to be difficult enough as it was, without such a tangible reminder of the days when ministers used to express opinions before consulting scientific committees. Wrong opinions, as it turns out.

With his front bench Gummer-free, the PM set about the business with a will. The thrust of his case, as it revealed itself, was as follows: last week we were having a perfectly manageable little health scare - past problem, not many dead, all better now - when along came Tony Blair and Harriet Harman and irresponsibly frightened the living daylights out of consumers. So if horrid things happen and cattle get slaughtered as a result of all this hysteria, it will be their fault.

But there was a paradox. While the PM's voice rose with anger and frustration, calling forth the full range of Majorite gesticulation (from pointing leftwards to pointing rightwards) the Labour leader probed forensically and quietly. Rarely has the case for calm been urged with such lack of restraint, nor the argument for panic pressed with such cool deliberation.

The best indication that the Major had lost the plot came when Blair asked the question that every consumer wants the answer to - how big is the risk now? - prompting the response that Labour's attitude would be "unfathomable to people in the agricultural industry and those outside it". Blair - not just fathomable but translucent - carefully enunciated that the Government was guilty of "mind-bogg-ling-in-compet-ence". Toe- knee sat down. "I would have thought you had done enough damage in the last few days," retorted Mr Major.

But was Labour alone to blame? Paul Marland (C, West Gloucestershire and farmer) added another name. Wasn't it time, he boomed, "for the media to stand up for Britain?" For a start they could go to the continent and "examine what in Europe is known as staggers". Is it really? "Donner und Blitzen, Marlene, es ist die Staggers." I don't think so, somehow.

Peter Viggers (C, Gosport) spread his net even wider. Labour, the media, and . . . McDonalds, "all of whom have something to sell: newspapers, beefburgers and themselves". Whereas government - poor, maligned, selfless government - had "other responsibilities". The Prime Minister agreed. All these people were indeed guilty of "ill-thought out comments, that should never have been made". Which would have been a bit hard to say with Jon Selwyn sitting next to him.