Order in the House, and other calls for discipline

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If there is an S&M tendency in the House of Commons, it ought to flock to Home Office questions and give itself a thrill. Since Labour "came out" as a law-and-order party, the competition has been fierce to see which side of the Chamber contains the greater number of leather- clad discipline lovers. Can Spanker Blair and Curfew Jack give more satisfaction than the hangers and floggers on the benches opposite?

Probably not, was the verdict after yesterday's exchanges. It was, after all, revealing that the Tory response to Tony's admission that he had - with regret - smacked his children, was to compare this with Bill Clinton's famous encounter with marijuana ("I smoked, but I didn't inhale"). The implication was that, when Conservatives beat their children, they do it not with weaselly sadness, but with a robust and manly pleasure.

Labour's Tony Banks found out the hard way what Michael Howard and his team really mean by "zero tolerance". A purring Home Secretary had just accepted the fawning congratulations of Matthew Carrington (Con, Fulham) on the tens of millions spent on new police stations in his constituency. Mistaking Mr Howard's look of feline self- satisfaction for good humour, Mr Banks asked gently whether there might not also be some extra resources for London coppers policing Euro 96. All of a sudden Mr Howard, in his mind's eye, was transported from the desert island on which maidens were feeding him pineapples and beef, to find himself in front of an Old Bailey jury, prosecuting a serial child killer. Typical Labour! he thundered, waving an accusing digit at the cowering Banks - always demanding extra for this and extra for that, while opposing every effort the Government made to bring criminals to justice. How could anybody trust them? Saliva rained down on the Dispatch Box. "What did I say?" asked the genuinely puzzled member for Newham.

Much the same happened when Mr Howard's formidable No 2, Anne Widdecombe, was asked a question about prisons. Ms Widdecombe, as we know, hasn't any children to hit (though one feels that she would be entirely comfortable smacking other people's). In a voice that could be heard the length of four hockey pitches (and a dress that could be seen for eight), she set about the outrageous suggestion made by Greville Janner (Lab, Leicester West) that the Government was presiding over prison overcrowding. It was, she bellowed, all the fault of the previous Labour government, which hadn't built the number of prisons it should have realised Mr Howard and herself were eventually going to need.

Enter David Evans (Con, Welwyn & Hatfield). "The Bri'ish payple", he yelled, "are sick'n tired of immy-grants who piy nuffing and tike evryfing." He advocated that such immy-grants shoud piy taxes for five years before they or their children were allowed to use the educition or helf services.

And how did the junior minister, Timothy Kirkhope, respond? Did he, perhaps offer some gentle reproof, remind him of the traditional tolerance of the British payple? Or, if that was too much to expect, did he simply place a polite distance between the Government's views and those of Mr Evans - just out of deference, say, to the Home Secretary's family's own fairly recent immigrant status?

No. These, alas, were the minister's exact words. "I congratulate my honourable friend on his robust remarks."And with them ensured that, for the time being, he and his colleagues are likely to retain the most committed S&M, black-leather vote. No contest.