Parliament: All praise Stockport, home to the famous brick viaduct

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
PRAYERS STOP dead at 2.33pm in Parliament, religious devotion being subject to the same intransigent timetable as all other parliamentary business. Worldly pieties often continue for a little longer, though. Yesterday, for example, Chris Smith's first question was a shameless underarm bowl from a Labour backbencher, Karen Buck, fearlessly demanding to know what progress the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was making towards increasing the representation of women and people from ethnic minorities. Just as fearlessly Mr Smith replied that they were making capital progress, at which point the congregation murmured the time-honoured response, "though obviously a great deal remains to be achieved in this area".

Then, at 2.35pm, real politics started, with Crispin Blunt asking a question about the unconscionable deprivation of Reigate when it came to lottery fund handouts. Tony Banks conceded that Mr Blunt's constituency was lagging a little behind the national average. Perhaps other lottery projects just had more to recommend them, he suggested, implacably. Perhaps it's all a conspiracy, suggested Dennis Skinner, rising to remind the House that Bolsover and Chesterfield, both constituencies with avowedly socialist MPs, had done conspicuously badly for lottery grants under the Conservative government. "If the boot has been put on the other foot a little then no bad thing!" Injustice for all was Mr Skinner's cry, and his relish at this reversal of fortunes earned him a tribute from Mr Banks for his zeal in attack.

This being the session for questions about tourism there will always be MPs who try to boost their own local attractions, however hopeless the enterprise seems. Ann Coffey, for example, drew the attention of the House to the glories of Stockport, a constituency that includes "the largest brick-built railway viaduct in the world".

Some of Ms Coffey's colleagues looked sceptical at the prospects of building a local tourist industry on such a foundation, but I thought I discerned some expressions of interest in the public gallery. Do you mean to say we could be looking at masonry in Stockport, people were saying to themselves, instead of trying to fight sleep here?

But then Mr Banks came on again for a second set and everyone perked up. The cheeky compere for Westminster's Cockney Knees-Up Experience (all the whelks you can eat and comic banter thrown in free) is always a crowd pleaser and he didn't let us down yesterday.

Simon Hughes acted as his first straight man, ticking off him and the Prime Minister for "kicking the England manager when he was down". Mr Banks noted drily that this tackle was so late that all the players had left the field. Then he defended himself; it wasn't easy for ministers, he pointed out, since commenting on such matters was like "walking on eggshells while wearing swimming flippers". This phrase is a good example of Mr Banks' continuing commitment to added value in metaphor provision. Most junior ministers would have satisfied themselves with the cliche, but Mr Banks went one surreally flapping step further.

His best line came later, though, in response to a question from Claire Ward, the youngest member in the House. He had enjoyed visiting her Watford constituency recently, he said, particularly since he had suffered an election defeat there in the 1979 election.

He then pointed out that she had been only seven at the time, an age that made her "too young to vote and too old to kiss". Several MPs quivered visibly at the delicious frisson this turn of phrase provoked - because there is more than one MP who believes the situation is now exactly the opposite. Ms Ward is now old enough to vote and young enough to kiss.

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