Parliament: Fond memories of witty Willie-isms

The Week In Westminster
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The Independent Online
HANDSOME TRIBUTES were paid to Viscount Whitelaw, MPs and journalists recalling the many "Willie-isms" that make John Prescott sound positively coherent.

Baroness Thatcher said of her much-loved former deputy: "If he said, `No, that won't do', I listened." But no one could top her own inimitable, but unintended double entendre when she said on his retirement: "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie."

In the week when final attempts were being made to end direct rule in Northern Ireland, Unionist MPs recalled Lord Whitelaw's initial comments on becoming the first Northern Ireland Secretary of State when Stormont was suspended in 1972: "I have always said it is a great mistake ever to pre-judge the past."

As Conservative Party chairman in 1974 he monitored party morale "with the thermometer in my mouth and I am listening to it all the time". During the race riots of the early 1980s in Brixton and Toxteth he famously declared, as Home Secretary: "I don't blame anyone except perhaps all of us." On the various anomalies in the television licensing system he promised: "We are examining the alternative anomalies", and told a select committee: "I can assure you that I might definitely take action."

With all eyes focused on John Prescott's performance at Prime Minister's Question Time again, after his disaster a month ago, perhaps Mr Prescott should have deployed Lord Whitelaw's classic response when standing in for Margaret Thatcher.

A smart-alec question from a young, thrusting, Opposition backbencher was met, to cheers, with: "I did not understand the honourable member's question: If I did, the answer would be yes; as I didn't, the answer is no."

His famous accusation against Harold Wilson "going around the country stirring up apathy" would have been especially appropriate during the campaign for last month's European election. Lord Whitelaw's comment that "the Tory party does not like brains; thank God I don't have any", belied his formidable skills as a political fixer.

PARLIAMENTARY debate was a rare winner during the exchanges between Ann Widdecombe and Jack Straw over passport delays.

Talk of the Commons being sidelined is premature so long as the Opposition front bench follow the example set by Miss Widdecombe. One Conservative MP wants her to give the Shadow Cabinet tutorials on how to Oppose.

By sheer dint of personality and debating ability she forced the Home Secretary on to the back foot with serious arguments combined with an old-fashioned knockabout turn. But she scored without once resorting to the tiresome tactics of calling for ministerial resignations.

Mr Straw was not a total pushover, responding with a well-judged balance of apology and explanation. Although batting on a sticky wicket he at least respects both Parliament and Miss Widdecombe.

The day before, he gave her advance sight of the report on Wormwood Scrubs prison and wallowed in smugness when she responded with a side-swipe at Frank Dobson, whom she previously shadowed: "It makes a change from the standards to which I have been used over the past year."

Mr Dobson never looked directly at Miss Widdecombe across the chamber. MPs used to bait him with "look at her" but he always winced at the prospect. Mr Straw is more careful at observing courtesies and is obviously more smitten with Miss Widdecombe's good looks than Mr Dobson.

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NIGEL EVANS (C, Ribble Valley) was backbencher of the week with an intervention in Jack Straw's speech during the debate on passport delays.

Mr Evans struck ministerial gold with a request about a passport for his constituent, Sharon Gowan, who marries today and planned to go on a honeymoon cruise. MPs and officials gasped when Mr Straw gave Mr Evans a personal guarantee that the passport would arrive by this morning. Sure enough, several tons of ministerial bricks fell on exasperated officials, who are now terrified that queue-jumping through Members of Parliament will become the norm.

Because of the publicity, a grateful Miss Gowan and her future husband have now also been offered a cabin upgrade by the shipping company and dinner at the Captain's table with Mr Evans, the hero of the hour.

A mischievous David Maclean (C, Penrith & the Border) asked the Ministry of Agriculture to make a statement on the "time taken to obtain a bovine passport".

The junior minister, Jeff Rooker, proudly boasted that 90 per cent of passports are sent out within three days. Mr Maclean has since suggested that the public in the queues outside Petty France dress up as cattle and that Mr Rooker be sent round to help out at the Home Office.

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THE 900TH anniversary of Westminster Hall was celebrated by Parliament with the first full-scale banquet since the Coronation of George IV in 1821.

Organised by the All Party Arts and Heritage Committee Chairman, Sir Patrick Cormack (C, Staffordshire South), the event threatened to steal the show from the celebrations in Edinburgh to mark the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

The 400 guests included the Speaker, resplendent in shocking-pink ball gown, Father of the House, Sir Edward Heath, the Lord Chief Justice and the Duke of Gloucester.

Members of Parliament and their families sat down to sea scallops, beef (Duke of Wellington-style) and red fruits with summer berries. MPs could not believe the kitchen off the Hall, known as "Plods" because it normally serves as the greasy spoon for Commons police staff, was capable of anything except huge fry-ups.

No attention to detail was spared and even the "Queen's Champion", whose predecessors played a central role in Coronation banquets by throwing down the gauntlet and challenging anyone who did not accept the Monarch, was in attendance.

State trumpeters blared fanfares, Robert Hardy delivered the "Pageant of the Hall" and the event was rounded off with items from Iolanthe.

Sir Patrick received glowing plaudits from MPs on all sides, with many tipping him as a good outside bet to succeed Miss Boothroyd when she eventually steps down.

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