PARLIAMENT: The Sketch - Meanwhile, back at Home Farm, the animals were after revenge

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The Independent Online
WAITING TO deliver his statement on the French ban on British beef Nick Brown appeared a little dry-mouthed. He reached for a glass of water as the last trade and industry question slithered off into the undergrowth and sipped at it with a nervous swilling motion - preparing himself for the ordeal ahead.

His apprehension wasn't surprising - deprived of their meal of Prescott- on-the-bone the previous day, Tory MPs were hungry for government discomfiture and, late on Wednesday night, the French cabinet had obligingly served it up. As he rose, some of the greedier boys shouted "Resign!", unable to curb their appetites any longer. "The catcalls should come after the statement," Mr Brown replied. Knives and forks down until grace has been said.

Mr Brown's problem was how to appear sufficiently and satisfactorily cross. His demeanour over the past few months has been one of placid rumination. He browses through French communiques and statements with the patient industry of a Friesian. The diet may well be thistly and sparse but Mr Brown has a digestive system designed to cope with it.

He chews over the diplomatic cud until it's finally transformed into the milk of sweet reason. More talks and assurances follow and he's moved on to a different patch of the field for the whole process to be repeated. At 11pm on Wednesday, though, it had finally become clear that there was no absolutely nutritional content in what he had been grazing on. In keeping with current French agricultural practice, Mr Brown had been fed on sewage.

But the Agriculture Minister seems to find it curiously difficult to express personal anger about the way his patient diplomacy has been cast back in his face.

Almost all his expressions of dismay were made on behalf of other people or phrased as endorsements of other people's reactions. "HMG are surprised and deeply disappointed," he said first, before going on to agree with the Prime Minister's belief that "the position the French were taking up was totally wrong". The European Commissioner, he told the House, saw "no alternative now but court action" and he understood "the anger which British farmers feel at this impasse" as well as the frustration felt more widely round the country. Virtually the only direct statement he made was this: "The French action is astonishing." Mr Brown is curious, not furious.

The Opposition have absolutely no difficulty in doing mad-cow impersonations - having practised them for months.

As Mr Brown sat down, the Tory herd mooed triumphantly and Mr Yeo's mocking reply was punctuated with plenty of other farmyard noises. At one point Nicholas Soames (C, Mid Sussex) uttered an amazingly loud bovine low, like a dairy cow that somebody had forgotten to milk.

When Mr Brown said "We're going to keep on talking" in answer to a question about what would happen next, there was another great bellow of anger and communal tossing of heads. Talking? The time for talking had passed - it was time to withdraw the British ambassador and start low-level bombing raids on French meat markets - dropping unlabelled packets of British beef on to unsuspecting consumers. It was time, in short, to take a leaf out of the enemy's book.

Sir Peter Emery (C, East Devon) stood up to declare that Mr Brown's "softly- softly" approach had been a disaster. Why didn't he follow the example of France, which stood up for its own interests and said to hell with the rest of Europe? Those damned Frenchies may be sneaky, but you have to admire their lack of community spirit.

Mr Brown wasn't open to advice, though. Peter Brooke (C, Cities of London and Westminster) asked whether he had second thoughts about any aspect of the Government's handling of the affair. In the current climate it wouldn't have done to answer in French but the tune in Mr Brown's mind was clear even so - Non, je ne regrette rien.