Politics: Mild Mr Smith dispenses tourist information to the masses

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
THE HOUSE of Commons resembled a series of seaside tourist offices yesterday as a succession of MPs pleaded the case for their local resorts during questions to Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport.

Mr Smith looks like the sort of worthy, middle-aged clerk you would meet at the railway station information office as you queue for details of the various delights of some particularly naff seaside town which has seen better days.

At the head of the queue for tourist information yesterday, about the latest taxpayers' cash availability, we had Bob Blizzard (Lab, Waveney) who represents Lowestoft. He wanted European financial directions to some marina which he believes will transform this cold and most easterly seaside town into a rival to Cannes, Nice or Antibes. He was followed up by Sir Teddy Taylor (Con Rochford and Southend East) who suggested that if only money were thrown at Southend we would all go there for our summer holidays.

Not to be outdone, Ronnie Fearn (Lib Dem Southport) said that if the pier at Southport could be repaired we would all flock there instead but he was contradicted by Gordon Marsden (Lab Blackpool South) who said that Labour's New Deal would transform Blackpool.

But the Labour Party itself is making a swan song appearance at Blackpool this year, as it seeks out more hip and cool alternatives for its conference. Give it a couple of years and Peter Mandelson will have all the delegates flying over to some exotic location in one of his favourite "cool" Spanish hotspots.

This was perhaps the last question time at which Mr Mandelson had to appear in his role as Minister without Portfolio. In the forthcoming reshuffle he will probably be given dozens of portfolios which will give him the chance to rampage over every corner of government in Whitehall.

For the time being, however, Mr Mandelson had to give his monthly account of how his dome is coming on. It is all going great guns and apparently companies are pouring money into it. But, apart from the money, he still does not know what to put in it, so he has got his faithful focus groups and opinion pollsters to tell him what we all want. Apparently there is something he calls a Spirit Level which is to be the dome's centrepiece.

Let us hope that, if they have difficulty selling tickets for the dome, Mr Blair has the sense to retain the excellent services of Tony Banks, the Minister for Sport.

Mr Banks was being upbraided by Michael Fabricant (Con Lichfield) for the appalling arrangements of distributing World Cup tickets to England supporters. Mr Banks replied, somewhat testily, "I'm not Tone the Tout", adding that he had no tickets at his disposal and the problem was all the fault of football's governing body, Fifa.

Mr Banks does not gift-wrap his view on life, much to his credit, and sympathised with Helen Jones (Lab Warrington North) when she complained that not enough lottery money had gone to her constituency. "It's a bummer," he told her apologetically.

The real bummer of the afternoon turned out to be the non-event of an Opposition debate on the economy - thanks to the decision by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give priority to the meeting of the European Monetary Affairs Committee, which was being held at the same time in Brussels. "My Right Hon Friend is representing Britain in Europe," Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told an indignant Opposition.

No one was more indignant at this than Sir Peter Tapsell (Con Louth and Horncastle) who said the Chancellor was ignoring the sovereignty of the House of Commons and that "democracy in this country is at risk".

Overstated, maybe, but Sir Peter aptly summed up the Government's attitude towards Parliament.