Parliament: Widdecombe's homage to Viagra makes members go limp

The Sketch
YOU MIGHT not have thought of Ann Widdecombe as a vigilante of political correctness, but any stick will do when it comes to beating the Government and Frank Dobson had dropped a very tempting one during a noisy intervention in his opening remarks on the Queen's Speech. The right honourable lady must be suffering from a premature attack of Alzheimer's, he suggested rashly, in the course of correcting some scandalous statistic that had just been thrown at him. Ms Widdecombe didn't say anything at the time, but she knew she had him. Yesterday Mr Mandelson had spotted a similar pitfall in advance. In the printed text of his speech he was due to lambast his shadow, John Redwood, as "not just wrong but blind". On the hoof he changed this to "not just wrong but quite stupid", presumably aware that he would shortly be joined on the front bench by David Blunkett, and that his first choice of words might prove uncomfortable. Mr Dobson wasn't as agile in dodging the hazard and he paid for it. "There are many people who will be grossly offended," said Ms Widdecombe, ticking him off for his flippancy about this awful illness.

You might not have thought of Ann Widdecombe as a particular fan of impotence treatment either. She generally gives the impression that the world would be immeasurably improved if turgidity below the belt line was just a fond memory for all of us. But Ms Widdecombe has her coquettish side and she isn't above using sex to get where she wants. Yesterday she titillated MPs with an unexpected confession: "Now, I'm extremely grateful to Viagra," she announced, before pausing for the Frankie Howerd "oohh" she knew would follow, "It solved a very big problem." Members on both sides of the House went momentarily limp at the thought of an impotent man faced with an expectant Ann Widdecombe but naturally she had other matters in mind. Viagra had forced the Government to admit that the NHS does, and must, ration some services. It had stiffened Ms Widdecombe's opposition, and that was good enough for her.

The opening section of the debate itself was a rather messy affair. Frank Dobson is no magician at the despatch box and Ms Widdecombe's interventions were opportunistic rather than consistent. The same could be said of her speech in reply, a kind of pick-and-mix of available grouses. She started with the great trolley scandal, demanding to know what had happened to the Government's promised "weekly performance checks on people waiting on trolleys". I think we can assume that it is languishing in some Whitehall corridor, plaintively asking passing civil servants when it will be seen by the minister, but Ms Widdecombe wasn't really interested in an answer. She was interested in the fact that Mr Dobson didn't have one.

Then she spent a considerable amount of time trying to get the minister to agree that government proposals on making insurers pay for the costs of treating traffic accident victims was a "tax". "I make no value judgement on whether this should be so or no," she said twice, as good as confessing that she had no substantive point to make. All she wanted to do was pin the Government in a semantic half-nelson, caught between an old statement and a new policy. Only the energy of her delivery could bring this off, but then there's energy to spare. Ms Widdecombe has an unusually penetrating voice. I write this sketch sitting at a desk in the corridor just outside the Press Gallery. Usually proceedings burble away behind my back, but as I tap away Ms Widdecombe has become exercised once again and her every word is as clear as a bell. When properly focused this is a voice that could be used to shatter kidney stones. Mr Dobson should be grateful that yesterday the calibration was out.

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