Parliament: The Sketch: Tory stamp of approval delivers blow to Labour benches

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The Independent Online
I DON'T suppose Stephen Byers expected quite such a warm welcome for his statement on the Post Office. Members hear-heared with gusto, greeting almost every clause with mutters of approval and ostentatious nodding.

They even waved their order papers at one point, when Mr Byers revealed that the Post Office would be transformed into a public limited company. But Mr Byers could not enjoy the applause, nor even acknowledge its existence, since it came exclusively from members on the Conservative benches.

It looked like a concerted plot to embarrass the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry but I think the truth was more haphazard than that. Tory members had begun cheering sarcastically - provoked by the resonant vacuities of Mr Byers' opening statement.

The White Paper, he said, in the kind of voice you might use to re-order A4 manilla envelopes, would "set the agenda for the Post Office to offer a world class service for the 21st century". It was thrilling stuff. The Post Office would not be left behind in the 20th century - it would join the rest of us in the next one. It would go forward, not back.

Every ringing full stop cued another mocking cheer from the Opposition benches. But then they began to realise that ironic sincerity might prove more than straight sarcasm. It took some members a while to cotton on; five or six minutes into Mr Byers' speech Eric Forth was still labouring away at the lowest form of wit - "Really radical isn't it?" he muttered after Mr Byers had assured the house that one stamp would cover the whole country, and then quickly scanned his classmates' faces for approval.

They, though, had realised that nothing would make Labour members itch quite as much as Conservative satisfaction - and had already begun to cheer as if they were congratulating Mr Byers' belated conversion to free market principles, rather than simply mocking his prose style. The Labour benches' modest silence might at first have been taken asThursday afternoon torpor - or mere dutiful attendance - but with every Tory cheer it took on a more sullen and disgruntled character.

Angela Browning's speech for the Opposition didn't enjoy quite as much success. She noted her sense of deja vu on listening to Mr Byers' proposals and then unwisely ventured an allusion to Michael Heseltine's last poke at Post Office privatisation. "Him Tarzan, me Jane," she joked, finally releasing Labour MPs from their vow ofsilence, as they speculated noisily on what Mrs Browning might look like hanging from the end of a vine in a leopard-skin sarong. Then she got down to the fine-print. Would Post Office PLC be allowed to go into bankruptcy she asked and if not wouldn't that give them an unfair advantage over their competitors? Someone on the Labour front bench muttered something rude and Mrs Browning obligingly decided on a repetition. "It is not a stupid question!" she yelped.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman Colin Breed excited MPs by pleading for proper high street Post Offices, counters you could reach "without meandering through books and knickers," - a slightly surreal picture of contemporary British retail practice that sent a ripple of arousal through the already skittish Tory benches.

They shut up very quickly when Tony Benn rose to describe the White Paper as "stage one of the privatisation of the Post Office" and denounce the climate of "deep hostility to the public sector".

Edward Leigh, beaming with satisfaction, got up to agree with him - only in his case he wanted to congratulate Mr Byers, not denounce him - and to invite him to burnish further his Thatcherite credentials by joining the No Turning Back group.