Back in the Shires rusty helmets were being burnished, flintlocks dug up and battle-flags stitched. The tatterdemalion army of British Torydom was being mobilised for action. Tapsell, Arnold, Falstaff, Nym, Bardolph, Atkins and Peto all raised standards stained with the blood of innocent British bulls. "For gelatine, tallow, semen and St George!" resounded through the chamber.
The greatest roars were for Mr Major's condemnation of the continued ban as "a wilful disregard of Britain's interests and, in some cases, a breach of faith", and for his threat that unless progress on lifting the ban was made "we cannot be expected to continue to co-operate normally on other Comm- unity business". Older members reminded each other of those other fateful prime ministerial words, culminating in "and therefore this country is now at war with Germany". A sense of history hung almost tangibly over the green baize.
But what would would the strategy be? Not balloons on the end of sticks again, surely? Or how about catapulting the carcasses of infected beasts over the ramparts of Brussels? Could it be (lips trembled) the empty chair?
Faintheart Blair, arch-appeaser of the Hun, asked typically picky questions which the boisterous patriots on the government benches almost drowned out. What exactly did the PM mean by non co-operation? Was he talking about non-attendance? Silent attendance? What? Yeoman newsagent Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) sat there shaking his head in disbelief at such preposterous queries. "Naive!" he yelled.
As the treacherous Labourite pressed his questions - deploying a relentlessness unmitigated by changes in tone and unlightened by trace of humour - so the war party's anger mounted. They know - as no-one else does - that this entire crisis was cooked up originally by the Labour Party, in cahoots with German cattle farmers, Spanish fishermen and Paraguayan ostrich ranchers.
But their anger turned to elation as their champion made the government's devilishly clever plan clear. The enemy will "not be able to agree any matters that require unanimity until this matter is resolved". The next Intergovernmental conference will be dominated by the issue of beef. The empty chair is too good for 'em. So every time some Tomas, Ricardo or Helmut says defence, or currency, or foreign policy - we will shout "beef!" We will shout it on the beaches, we will never give up. Britain is to fight the bore war.
And we are well-equipped to do it. One by one the enthusiastic soldiery stood to salute his boldness. Sir Peter Tapsell, tanned and smooth (like a conker with teeth), informed the PM that he was supported by "British people across the nation, who feel distaste that, at a moment of national crisis, the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties should have proved themselves incapable of speaking for Britain!" "The science is on our side," replied Mr Major. God will doubtless follow.
By now Tory MPs were hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line, feeding on each others' moods - as though every member was turning an invisible handle connected to a clockwork mechanism in his or her neighbour. The cautious, like Edwina Currie, departed, leaving the jubilant hawks in sole possession. One of the latter summed it up. "This afternoon the Prime Minister has spoken for Britain!" Nine words from Nicholas Winterton that should strike terror into the heart of every thinking Conservative. In the words of Wellington, I do not know what these men will do to the Europeans, but by God, they frighten me.Reuse content