Labour's bad gang seeks safer targets

The large audience made the ministerial fog bank even more painfully dense than ever

Yesterday Labour MPs voted by nearly three to one for new rules to govern their behaviour, including the catch-all charge of "bringing the party into disrepute". In soccer this phrase covers a number of the more interesting sins, encompassing abusing fellow team members as well as pulling down your shorts and revealing your bottom to the crowd.

Unable to go about their usual business of sitting around complaining about Brown and Blair, they left the meeting and barrelled into the Chamber looking for someone else to abuse. And found - to their boisterous delight - the Government's charismatically challenged trade and industry team sitting in a row on the front bench, just asking to be duffed up.

To describe the fiftysomething group of Messrs Lang, Taylor 1, Taylor 2, Page and Knight as "grey" is to deprive that hue of colours, textures, shades, nuances and moods which often go overlooked. A bar full of retired assistant bank managers discussing with-profits annuities at a joint golf club and Rotarians fund-raiser, holds out more prospect of hilarious fun.

So the naughty boys' bench (where Dennis Skinner always sits) had eight, rather than the usual two occupants. The heckler's area (at the back, beyond the gangway) was also well populated, with George Foulkes and Tony Banks engaging in a personal competition to see who could get the best one-liners and abusive names inserted at delicate points in Tory MPs' questions or ministers' replies.

The effect on the ministerial fog bank of this unexpectedly large and unappreciative audience was to make it even more painfully obscure, dense and vapid than ever. Labour's Kevin Hughes (Doncaster North) mischievously asked Richard Page, Under Secretary for Small Business, Industry and Energy about deregulation (incidentally this is a bad title, since the "small" appears to apply as much to the energy and industry as it does to the business, suggesting that the minister is both lazy and ineffective).

"How many items of legislation have been repealed since the beginning of the deregulation initiative in 1994; and how many statutory instruments [that is, new regulations] have been introduced in that period?" was Mr Hughes's question.

There had, mumbled Mr Page, been 93 repeals and 315 new instruments. Not a great success then! roared the naughty boys. Mr Page made the best of a bad job. Mr Hughes "did not quite grasp the principle of deregulation", he floundered, explaining that "we live in an increasingly complex world". Most of these regulations were measures for consumer protection. Did the Opposition not "want to remove carcinogens from babies' dummies?" he asked, desperately updating one of politics' oldest accusations.

Few were enjoying this more than Tony Banks. No Conservative was safe from an interjection from the member for Newham North West and (if polls are to be believed) destined to become the first elected Mayor of London. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon) was opposed to the 48-hour directive; "vicious mill-owner!" shouted Tony. The Oftel regulator was opposed to Labour's windfall tax, said another Conservative. "Tory stooge!" came the cry.

But who did he remind me of? Then I twigged. Tony Banks is metamorphosing into Captain Haddock, the permanently (and comically) enraged sidekick of Tintin the boy detective, whose stock-in-trade was a collection of colourful terms of abuse such as "Coelacanths!", "bashi-bazouks!", "vegetarians!" and, of course, "billions of blue blistering barnacles!"

The blue barnacles affixed to the government benches may not appreciate the new Haddock, but Tone-tone, the boy leader, certainly will. So as long as loyal Banksy keeps his shorts on, he will prosper, even under the new disciplinary code.

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