Parliament: The Sketch: Farmer Brown's performance upstaged by arrival of city slicker Labour muck-spreader spatters front benches with nonsense

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The Independent Online
I FELL ASLEEP during environment questions and had an unpleasant dream about swimming across a stagnant pond with a large plastic bag over my head. I suppose I should be ashamed of myself but I would cite two things in mitigation: first, the overpoweringly anaesthetic nature of the question that finally put me under - an inquiry about the auditing of parish councils - and second, that even as my forehead drooped towards the press gallery railing, my mind was struggling to produce an appropriate metaphor for such asphyxiating proceedings.

I have John Redwood to thank for the fact that I did not drown, as I was woken up with a start by one of his characteristic yelps of outrage. He has a way of delivering a hostile remark in a smooth and even tone that suddenly leaps in volume, like a furious dog hurling itself against a garden gate. But he was not really cross yesterday; he was going through the motions. The genuine fury came a little later, and not from Mr Redwood but from Tory backbenchers goaded by Nick Brown's statement on the end of the beef-on-the-bone ban.

You could see their point. Mr Brown is an equable fellow - meek and mild, even when the insults are spattering him like manure from a muck-spreader. His impervious tranquillity is maddening in its own right - no backbenchers like to feel they are firing blanks - but, when combined with statements of transparent illogicality, it is even harder to bear. And yesterday Mr Brown had a lot of nonsense to dispense.

Conservatives greeted his first remarks with ironic cheers but soon turned querulous. "You've got to listen to the end of the statement before you condemn it," Mr Brown said in tones of bemused innocence. But the honourable members opposite saw no reason to establish a precedent now and continued to barrack him. The chief burden of the attack was delay. If the Minister for Agriculture had received the all-clear from the Chief Medical Officer 10 weeks ago, why had he waited until now to do something? Was it not simply so that there would be no embarrassing divergence between English policy and that adopted in Scotland and Wales?

No, replied Mr Brown, with a wonderfully straight face, it was "in the interests of consumers and producers to have uniform action". "Why?" cried Tory MPs in unison. Mr Brown could not answer that simple question because there was no answer. English consumers of beef on the bone would presumably have been perfectly happy to start eating before their Scottish counterparts, and English producers equally happy to supply them. What is more, the insistence on unified action clearly undermined the whole principle of devolution. So instead he told Conservatives to stop jeering from the sidelines.

That really did it. Sir Peter Emery, who had been smouldering dangerously for some time, finally went off: "He's talking nonsense!" he concluded, a line that made up in vehemence and volume what it lacked in adjectival finesse.

Then Michael Portillo arrived, and attention drained away from Mr Brown. Flanked by Francis Maude and James Arbuthnot, he advanced towards the dispatch box. Tory members huzzahed and waved their order papers, like men overboard who had just spotted an approaching lifeboat. William Hague smiled bravely, trying to suppress the fear that the lifeboat was on course to sail right over him. Labour MPs simply enjoyed the prospect of an unsettling reshuffle, gesturing at the tightly packed opposition front bench. "Mek room, lads," shouted Lindsay Hoyle at no one in particular. Stephen Pound was more specific: "William," he shouted cheerfully, "you're in Michael's seat!"