Parliament: The Sketch: Old jokes reincarnated as painfully embarrassing moments

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The Independent Online
PETER AINSWORTH, the shadow Culture Secretary, had been struck by a happy thought as he scanned the front page of The Guardian yesterday. Perhaps he shared it with his wife over the breakfast cereals, perhaps she then explained Daddy's joke to the children.

Perhaps, though, he kept his counsel and carried the notion with him into the House like a pocket hand-warmer, a concealed flame that he hugged against the chill of this most thankless task - appearing to give a damn about the Government's plans for regional theatres. And then finally, during questions about the Millennium Dome, he spotted an opportunity to take his light out of its bushel. He had been most interested to read of plans to freeze the Thames at Greenwich, he told the House with an anticipatory grin, but wouldn't the minister agree with him that "this was taking the idea of `Cool Britannia' a little too far?"

Members tittered politely or issued the mildly approbatory groan the House reserves for over- polished lines.

His colleague, Richard Spring, was packing heat too - arriving in the chamber with a concealed joke that he suddenly whipped out when questioning Chris Smith about something called Quest, yet another of those purposeful sounding acronyms for which the Government has such a weakness. Fortunately for Mr Smith, the joke in question was a harmless replica - it looked like a deadly jibe but it could only fire blanks: "What has happened to the `arm's length principle'," Mr Spring demanded severely, "his understanding of which is on a par with the Venus de Milo." Mr Smith waved away the blue smoke with a practised air of contempt.

His frontbench colleague, Tony Banks, was luckier, in that he got his prepared gag out pretty soon after curtain up, when the audience was in a more receptive mood.

Mr Banks would have known there was bound to be a question about the England football coach's rather punitive notions about disability (one can only assume that Glenn Hoddle disapproves of wheelchair ramps and Braille notices as a blasphemous mitigation of divine justice). And so, like Mr Ainsworth, he had come prepared.

After Ivor Caplin had added an indignant codicil to an innocuous question about the National Stadium, he rose to confess his exasperation at recent events in his manor, events that had led him to reflect on his own past- life misdemeanours: "I can only conclude that I was Vlad the Impaler," he said, "and I felt all of my impaling instincts come back as I surveyed the sporting world this week."

Mr Banks, who was actually a music hall comedian in his previous life and has carried through the sense of timing into his current existence, got a genuine laugh for the way in which he had side-stepped the skewer of the question.

All this talk of reincarnation naturally led to more general speculation about the karmic prospects - what, for instance, will the Conservative Party return as once it has finally passed on? It can't be long now, because the death rattles are getting ever more strident.

Yesterday's question session was a good case in point - a messy exercise in hand-to-hand in which the will to wound was present but the means to do it completely absent. Again and again Tory backbenchers rose, misfired loudly and then had to listen as the Labour front bench took the opportunity to reiterate its triumphs.

Michael Fabricant, who in a previous life was a Pekinese with an erotic fixation for society ladies' legs, was typical of the ill-prepared attacks - roundly denouncing Labour for breaking an election promise on museum charges and then being obliged to sit and look bashful as Alan Howarth detailed exactly how Labour was going about keeping it. To make Mr Howarth look impressive is something of an achievement, it is true, but not one that is likely to earn Mr Fabricant many Brownie points on his particular astral plane.