Parliament: The Sketch: Tiny figleaf covers up the Tories' rampant manhood

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The Independent Online
I ASSUME the Chancellor had a bad-tempered breakfast listening to BBC Radio's Today programme as John Maples outed the Treasury as the only government department that had failed to respond to questions about ministerial travel.

The trip to the House, made for reasons of presentation on the Treasury tandem (cost to the taxpayer, 0.17p for inner-tube depreciation) clearly hadn't improved his humour either, because he arrived on the front bench in a singularly stroppy mood, even by his own high standards of unprovoked belligerence. The embarrassment in question never actually materialised incidentally, a half-hearted attempt by John Wilkinson being quickly seen off by collective face-pulling from the front bench and a historical footnote from Dennis Skinner, who reminded the House that he was old enough to remember the time when Tories demanded to know why Labour ministers hadn't flown in Concorde.

But by this time everybody was in a right old mood anyway - the tone of general irascibility having been set from the start by the Chancellor and his equally aggressive lieutenant Alan Milburn. Both men reacted to every intervention as if someone had deliberately nudged a pint of beer into their laps. Whatever the subject of the question - and there was at least one uncomfortably awkward one from Francis Maude - they rapidly reverted to taunting the Opposition. Occasionally Labour backbenchers would offer a bit of mollifying sycophancy, as if to defuse the situation, but it rarely worked. Mr Brown would look momentarily soothed by the flattery and then struggle free to throw another wild punch.

This wasn't just a matter of wayward testosterone, either, because the Treasury's three frontbench women were determined to match their boss blow for condescending blow. Dawn Primarolo went first, like a snotty cabin attendant for a budget airline, the enunciation lessons slowly beginning to unpeel as the passengers got increasingly rowdy. She was the first member to get a warning, after suggesting that the Opposition's selective amnesia about their own record "verges on dishonesty". There was a scandalised "ooohh" from Tory members, but her reluctant apology didn't calm things down.

As she sat down after a particularly vacuous evasion, the phrase "stupid woman" sang out from the Conservative benches. Now it was Labour's turn to complain to Miss. One of the rough boys had said a bad word. Miss, who hadn't heard the insult, announced that no one was going for playtime until she found out what had been said and by whom. Ms Primarolo mouthed the offending phrase silently at her, like one of Les Dawson's northern women negotiating her way past an unmentionable ailment. "Was it Mr [Nicolas] Gibb?" Miss asked sternly, after Labour snitches had fingered the miscreant. "I believe you insulted half the population of this country," Miss continued regally. "As I am one of them I would ask you to withdraw the remark."

After that a certain air of sexual antagonism dominated the proceedings. This was hardly surprising as the Tory Treasury team is entirely male, while women are unusually well represented on the government side.

Indeed Barbara Roche decided to abandon economic policy altogether in favour of female solidarity. "Not one woman member", she said scornfully, gesturing across at the opposition benches. Unfortunately she had missed the arrival of Julie Kirkbride, who had slipped in quietly, effectively disabling her warhead while it was still in the air. As a man Tory MPs turned to jab their fingers proudly at Ms Kirkbride, who had preserved their modesty at the very last moment - a tiny and barely adequate figleaf for the party's rampant manhood.

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