Parliament: Departing hero leaves House with a happy hangover

The Sketch

THERE WAS a slightly morning-after feeling in the Commons yesterday - Conservative MPs in that mood of crapulous irritability that often follows unwise indulgence and Labour MPs happy to remind them of how foolish they had looked when they had been discovered handcuffed to a House of Lords lamppost with their trousers round their ankles.

In the Upper Chamber, Lord Strathclyde confessed that his party "had taken some hard blows" but it didn't look like it, frankly, with great waves of amiability waftingfrom both sides. Lord Cranborne himself, the instigator of Wednesday night's festivities, was sleeping it off somewhere, but his ears will have been glowing - Tory peers didn't quite sing "For he's a jolly good fellow" when tributes were paid to him, but there was no sense of resentful obligation in the ceremonies of farewell.

Margaret Jay confided in peers that she and the exiled hero had had "extremely personal relations", a choice of phrase that clearly made the blood pulse dangerously through some sclerotic arteries. Lord Strathclyde, as cheerfully urbane in his elevation as Lord Cranborne had been in his fall, expressed his hope that this appealing closeness might continue under his leadership. If they were feeling the effects of the previous night, in short, then it was one of those delicious champagne hangovers - all benevolence, with the bubbles of excitement still rising in the blood.

Naturally, Labour MPs shared some of that continuing buzz - happy, after their own humiliation on Tuesday, to have an opportunity for retaliation so soon. This time it was circumstance that had written their lines for them, rather than Millbank. Was Mr Mandelson expecting a question from the other House relating to unfair dismissal, asked one backbencher, archly? John Battle concluded a testy reply from the front bench by saying that he wasn't really surprised at the level of the questioning since the Conservatives "aren't even capable of joined-up opposition any more".

"I'm tempted to ask him whether he's cleared his questions with the leader," teased Mr Mandelson, as he dodged a precise interrogation from John Redwood about the euro. Tory members scowled as these pre-prepared missiles dropped around them. They had been obliged to gulp down something far rougher and less forgiving the previous night, a bitter plonk distilled from Bulgarian tractor fuel and grape waste, and it had left them decidedly snappish.

On another day Mr Mandelson would have had a much harder time, particularly given recent press reports suggesting that his fingerprints had been found all over a sizeable donation to the Millennium Dome. Since Mr Mandelson had promised a hands-off policy with regard to procuring sponsorship he was invited by Graham Brady to apologise for misleading the House. Naturally he declined, but murmurs of protest from Tory backbenchers had no real force to them. They didn't want a lot of noise, they just wanted to lie down somewhere in a darkened room.

They couldn't even find it in themselves to enjoy Dennis Skinner, who almost always acts as a kind of Parliamentary Alka Seltzer. He rose during Millennium Dome questions to propose that its contents should include a fund-raising prehistoric section. For a small fee, he suggested, children could have their pictures taken with ermine-clad hereditary peers, and maybe Baby Dome - a respectful reference to the Tory leader - would act as a celebrity tour guide. Mr Mandelson grinned and said he would look into the possibility of a Cranborne Memorial as part of the Millennium. No wonder he looked happy; if even Mr Skinner thinks this is a laughing matter, the Government can afford to open another bottle right away.

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