Parliament: The Sketch: Lesson in smugness from Mr Brown's little treasures

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The Independent Online
THE COMPETITION is pretty stiff but I think the Treasury frontbench team may be the smuggest, most self-satisfied ministerial grouping in the current Government. I should note before I proceed that there are people here with less right to hold the trophy than others. Barbara Roche, for instance, does not always pull her weight when it comes to cliches and condescension. And, paradoxically, the team captain sometimes lets the side down a bit too. This is not because Gordon Brown can't curl a lip with the best of them, but because there is still some quality of untutored authenticity to his arrogance. As he sneers back at the opposition or flings some dog-eared riposte there is a human flair to his performance which is missing from Alan Milburn's work on the wing. You feel that Mr Milburn works for every point he scores, an admirable dedication to the craft which should not go unrecorded.

My grounds for exempting Ms Roche, incidentally, can't fairly be described as anything other than prejudice. For one thing I have noticed that I don't grind my teeth when she stands at the despatch box, for another I saw her recently on Muswell Hill High Street being nice to the children she was with. She may find it unfair to be singled out like this but I can't dodge the facts; for her, at least, I have first-hand evidence of humanity. I realise it's possible that the supremely irritating mannerisms of her two female colleagues in the Treasury might also conceal an off- the-pitch normality. But, if so, all I can say is that they conceal it with an admirable professionalism.

When I watch Dawn Primarolo at the dispatch box I can't quite shake a vision of her dressed in a puce courier's uniform and surrounded by disgruntled charter passengers demanding to know when their refreshment vouchers will arrive. She clutches at her clipboard with white knuckles, voice hovering between synthetic mollification and panic, her stresses becoming ever more stressed as the temperature rises. Patricia Hewitt, on the other hand, adopts a different role, that of a veteran nursery school teacher - a woman who thinks of herself as having a special way with the little ones. The ghastly singsong in which she delivers New Labour's bedtime story is accompanied at all times by a fixed smile, an acknowledgement that you need lots of patience if you're going to work with toddlers.

Sometimes it is necessary to be stern, of course. When one Tory MP asked an impertinent question about "dirty foreign trucks" she promptly smacked his knuckles for xenophobia. This was a tiny bit unfair, since he was talking about air pollution and the trucks he had in mind were undeniably both foreign and dirty. But discipline must be maintained and virtue encouraged. Fortunately he was followed by a good boy, Ben Bradshaw, who earned several gold stars for coming to school on a bicycle and restored Ms Hewitt's sunny mood. It's pupils like little Ben who make the whole job worthwhile. Or like Paul Goggins, who later invoked a genuine schoolboy in a syrupy question about what representations the Chancellor had received from children with regard to debt relief. He himself had received a postcard from seven- year-old Joshua Dean saying "Please help cancel the debt". The Chancellor briefly played Jim'll Fix It, promising to sell off part of the IMF's gold mountain to fund little Joshua's dream, at which point, nervous that a moppet-gap might be opening up between the parties, Nick St Aubyn stood up to make the implausible assertion that "there are lots of children round the country who support the last Conservative government's efforts to reduce debt". We were spared the views of primary school children on the new fiscal regime for British shipping or the withholding tax, but if this sort of thing carries on Ms Hewitt's peculiar skills may come in useful.

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