Parliament: The Sketch: Widdecombe eclipsed by allies' folly

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The Independent Online
AMONG THE more amusing fantasies thrown up by the Conservative Party's recent embarrassments has been the idea that its fortunes might be improved by replacing William Hague with Ann Widdecombe.

This surely is a measure of desperation. Ms Widdecombe is actually not bad at her job but she has a voice like an ill-secured exhaust pipe trailing on asphalt and what she says with it is unlikely to be much more attractive to the renegade voters of Middle England.

What's more, as yesterday's health questions demonstrated, any amount of capacity is unlikely to help if you are surrounded by associates like these. Though the Conservatives started well, rattling the Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, on the matter of junior doctors' hours, they simply gave up halfway through, as if disheartened by their own lack of coherence in attack.

Denis MacShane first stirred things up, asking Mr Dobson whether he was aware that a recent paperback, "Satan's Children", written by the Tory Health spokesman Alan Duncan, had discussed charging national health patients. The book is actually called Saturn's Children and Tory backbenchers rushed to correct Mr MacShane - how touching is their naivete sometimes - convinced the slip was inadvertent. In fact, it was a sly set-up for his next gibe, a reference to Ms Widdecombe as "Queen of the Underworld".

The egg they had intended for his face blew back on theirs and they let the humiliation show, roaring indignantly for the Speaker to rebuke their tormentor for unparliamentary language. This done, Mr Dobson rose to take advantage of Mr MacShane's dummy - the book's true title, he noted, might account for the fact that the Tory party had been "running rings around each other".

It didn't all go his way, though. Simon Hughes had asked a sharp opening question and Ms Widdecombe took up one of his more piercing details - a suggestion that the Government had been pressing the European Union to allow junior doctors to work up to 65 hours a week, a mysterious request since the Government has pledged that the maximum should be 54 hours.

Mr Dobson folded his arms even tighter around his chest and stared even more ostentatiously away from Ms Widdecombe. "She should stop pursuing this daft line of questioning", heeventually replied, thus confirming for Ms Widdecombe that she had taken exactly the right turning. She pressed him further, quoting criticism from a European official. He blustered, he fogged and he came dangerously close to an outright denial, before swerving off at the last moment. He looked like a man who would turn the air blue the moment he got safely behind closed doors.

But then Mr Duncan came to his rescue. Rising from the front bench, the Tory party's intellectual equivalent of an Apache attack helicopter hovered menacingly for a moment - and then crashed into a hillside. What could you expect of a Government like this, he said, his voice rising thrillingly, a Government that had "done nothing to prepare people for the dangers of August's solar eclipse".

Conservatives looked bemused. Was this the new big issue? Protecting citizens who, without state intervention, might stare at the sun through bits of Quality Street wrapper? Andrew Mackinlay, temporarily occupying the Dennis Skinner Seat of Sedentary Abuse, let out a great yelp of relief. "This is breathtaking!" he yelled."Some opposition, some opposition!"

If Mr Duncan has hopes of succession he dented them badly yesterday but Mr Mackinlay confirmed that he was heir to the throne he sat in - a true Heckler-in-Waiting.

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