Odd looking cove whose heart wasn't really in it

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It was Health and Nation day in the Commons yesterday. In the early afternoon one Conservative backbencher stood up to share his ideas on physical well-being with the ministers responsible.

Did they realise, he asked, how coronary illness was linked to obesity and lack of exercise? Under the circumstances they could hardly fail to. For even as the words were leaving his lips, the gigantic frame of the largest Tory in the House, Sir Donald Thompson, his stomach preceding his legs by over half a metre, was mounting the shallow steps to the furthest benches at a steady rumble.

Despite the sudden loss of light, the junior minister did not hesitate. The House, he said, should set a good example in these questions. His message was simple. Get physical! Release those endorphins!

An opportunity for such release was due to be provided by Malcolm Rifkind, down to make a statement on the Government's White Paper on Europe. Given that the European Court of Justice, with all the timing and sensitivity of Chinese mission control, had dropped a one-ton judgement against Britain over working hours, from a very great height, it all boded ill for the Foreign Secretary. At 3.30 his time arrived.

Now Mr R is an odd-looking cove. Gangling and tall, with an elongated head, unblinking eyes, a rebellious crest of hair and a long, thin, upwardly curving mouth fixed in a sardonic half-smile, he resembles nothing so much as a crane, or possibly a stork. At the dispatch box you half expect him to tuck one leg under his body, whilst balancing quite comfortably on the other. When he opens his bill, out rattle the refined vowels of Edinburgh Morningside, made so famous by Ms Jean Brodie, but at express speed.

And at speed did Mr Rifkind unwrap his little bundle - entitled a Partnership Of Nations - while we all wondered how it would be received by the those on the benches behind him.

As readers know, there are essentially three types of Tory backbencher: the completely unknown (who are forced to remind their families of their names and kinship on returning home); the heroes of the past (whose families now have to remind them); and the Euro-sceptics. These last are the ones whose voices, dress sense and obsessions are known almost intimately by viewers of Newsnight or the News At Ten. And they were all ominously present, arms folded and scowling (or in the case of Mr Cash, making copious notes - doubtless to entertain dinner guests).

But somehow the endorphins remained entrapped. Robin Cook, like a cartoon terrier, snapped and growled half-heartedly around the bottom of Rifkind's leg, rarely threatening to sink his teeth into actual soft flesh. One suspected his heart wasn't really in it.

But why was everyone else just going through the motions? In a week where Euro Advocate Generals with names like Defarge, Macaroni and Himmler have tried to force Britons to work short hours and take long holidays (something my father fought a war to stop), and when Brussels Commissioner Emma Bovary (I think) has come out against our noble fisher folk, you might have expected no enda endorphins.

But no. They didn't get physical. Cash's question was subdued, Aitken's biggest problem was to find a pocket to slip a hand into (smart jackets don't have them anymore), Redwood's vulpine features relaxed - eyes at half-glint. Even Lamont was reasonably content.

Why? Perhaps it was because the thing which really matters to MPs - the single currency and the issue of a referendum - was not in the stork's bundle at all. That all comes later, apparently. And when it does there will be exercise for all.