Parliament: The Sketch - Widdecombe's blue touchpaper is lit, everyone stands back...

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The Independent Online
HOME OFFICE questions began with fireworks - not the metaphorical kind, since the session as a whole was something of a damp squib, but the real sort, which had led Bill O'Brien, Labour MP for Normanton, to ask an anxious question about firework-related incidents. "I'm not anti- firework ..." he began, a large part of his anxiety clearly directed at the danger of sounding like a puritanical killjoy.

Tricky things fireworks, particularly for politicians, since the electors are almost universally in favour of coloured flashes and loud bangs and yet there remains a legitimate question for legislators to consider; just how much explosive material should the ordinary citizen have access to?

The New Labour approach is broadly nannyish - there'd be no tears before bedtime if we would all just leave these matters to the state and pop along to the local council display. Barbara Roche, Home Office Minister of State, duly gave a big parliamentary plug for the Alexandra Palace fireworks this coming Saturday in north London. The Tories, on the other hand, take a more libertarian approach - being ideologically committed to individual initiative in the field of explosion supply. Let a thousand sparklers glitter, and all that.

The trouble is that private enthusiasts can so easily get carried away by their passion. Hazel Blears, who represents the ingenious pyrotechnic experts of Salford, had a question about the "deliberate use of fireworks to cause alarm, distress and injury to people and damage to property" and, unwisely perhaps, she gave a detailed example of what she meant. Apparently Salford youths have discovered that if you place a banger inside a traffic cone and then place the traffic cone inside a telephone kiosk the result is gratifyingly dramatic.

Ms Roche deplored this kind of unlicensed experimentation but thought that, on the whole, the existing laws could cover it. "At the end of the day we're talking about criminality," she said, as though she had better make things absolutely clear in case anyone present was tempted to imitate these acts of kioskicide.

John Bercow, the Tories' Jumping Jack, wasn't taking any chances. Could she assure him that there would be no additional restrictions with regard to the purchase of fireworks? He looked strangely excited as he put the question, as though he was already itching to leave the chamber and get his hands on a traffic cone.

You can understand that he might want a bigger bang, since the display in Parliament is often longer on promise than it is on delivery. David Amess, for example, always goes off with a huge, chest-thumping boom that makes you brace yourself for a sky-filling bloom of brilliance. But then there's a long pause and ... nothing but empty air. A little later the stick clatters harmlessly back to earth, still smouldering slightly at one end. Similarly Michael Fabricant fizzes furiously into action at first - but it isn't usually long before his wild revolutions have dislodged him from his axis, like a loosely nailed catherine wheel, and he bounces out of control down the garden.

Fans of Commons fireworks can usually depend on Ann Widdecombe, though - one of those ominously stubby devices, so powerful that they have to be bought under the counter from an unscrupulous importer. Most spectators believed her fuse had been lit by the second question to Jack Straw, one about police numbers, but then nothing happened. Mr Straw knew it would be folly to approach too close - she could so easily blow up without warning.

In the event she smouldered for some 20 minutes before finally igniting. "Hurrah!" shouted excited Tory MPs as she arced magnificently upwards to her maximum altitude of five feet above the carpet - now, at last, they would really see a starburst. I can only think that rain had dampened Miss Widdecombe's powder - because the report, when it came, was disappointingly muted.