Parliament: Clasped in comfort to the ample bosom of Baroness Strange

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
LORD RUSSELL predicted a "contentious afternoon", speaking as the Lords began their consideration of the Commons' amendments to the Welfare and Pensions Reform Bill. Amended amendments, in other words, since last week the Government, after some concessions to its opponents, had drawn a line in the sand. Yesterday the Lords, determined further to amend the amended amendments, looked down at the line, jabbed their toes in an exploratory fashion towards it - and then crossed it.

It looked at first as if the predicted rebellion might turn out a little anti-climactic, but only because the first amendments to be considered were those that had attracted the largest concessions. Lord Rix was a little sad that his own Clause One had lost its star billing and been reduced to Clause 48 (somewhere below Understudies and Costume Care by Daz), but he didn't intend to endanger the whole show over a mere contractual quibble and was happy to let the Government's altered version past without a division. The same thing happened to the next amendment - again not entirely satisfactory to the rebels in the chamber but not juttingly outrageous enough to be usable as a barricade. In the wording of the motion, their Lordships decided they would not "insist on their amendment" - they could if they really wanted to, you understand, but courtesy and good breeding prevented anything so vulgar.

But then it was Baroness Strange's turn and she wasn't ready to subside quite so placidly. True, the Government had made a minor adjustment to their proposals to remove war widows' pensions in the event of remarriage - but the nips and tucks couldn't transform what she saw as an elementary injustice. She spoke from the heart on this matter, or rather from the bosom - a capacious repository of sentiment and compassion. She spoke partly on behalf of the children, she said, the little ones whose dreams of paternity had been dashed by this unfeeling and arbitrary decision.

She painted a word picture of infantile need for their Lordships, recalling some young visitors of her own, one of whom had told the ushers she was "a nice lady", another of whom had worn "a party frock", all of whom could have been seen "turning their faces to father-figures like sunflowers to the sun". I am afraid I let out an involuntary giggle - overcome by the notion of a yearning infant fixing on Lord Longford as a father substitute, as if a newly hatched duckling were to bond with a housebrick on a string.

But Baroness Strange has a good heart and if there was ever a bosom to which one could be clasped in comfort, it is hers. So broad is it that she could probably provide solace for the orphaned offspring of an entire regiment, without making anyone wait in line. No ordinary poppy will do for a bosom of this generosity and amplitude - the Baroness was sporting a floppy affair about the size of a dinner plate, and yet it still looked modest on that broad upholstered expanse.

There were several in the chamber who responded to its maternal promise - members who cited their own wartime bereavements before announcing their support for Baroness Strange's modified amendment.

Lord Russell drily mocked the Government's argument that one act of charity would set a dangerous precedent for more of the same - though he didn't mock it effectively enough to prevent Baroness Hollis of Heigham from resorting to it again when she summed up. She hoped Baroness Strange wouldn't press the matter to a vote.

But Baroness Strange did, with an Oscar acceptance speech in which she thanked virtually every one in the chamber for their love and support. She even thanked Baroness Hollis for "the kind and lovely way" she had pursued the Government's interests before calling a division. Whether it was pure sentiment or proper scrutiny that won the vote, depended on your prejudice. But the Government certainly lost it.

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