Politics: Wargames reveal the Colonel Blimps on Labour's benches

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
DEFENCE QUESTIONS in the Commons yesterday allowed MPs who have never quite grown up to continue their school hobbies of playing with toy soldiers, tanks, Airfix kits and battleships.

Private John Bercow (Con, Buckingham) was concerned about the future of the Territorial Army, believing that 18,000 TA soldiers will go in rumoured cuts. He was rebuffed by the junior minister John Reid, who reminded him that the Tories had cut 30,000 from the TA during their years in power.

Tories were hit time and again by the Labour refrain "more cuts took place under the Tories". This line proved effective ammunition for Mr Reid when he accused Tony Baldry (Con, Banbury) of being another former minister "revisiting the scenes of his previous crimes".

Bob Russell (Lib Dem, Colchester), Gerald Howarth (Con, Aldershot) and Tam Dalyell (Lab, Linlithgow) made heavy weather of the failure, so far, of the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, to ratify the Ottowa Treaty on the abolition of landmines. Mr Howarth wanted him to sign up by the first anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales.

Mr Robertson had a good defence for his alleged dilatoryness, pointing out that 450,000 British anti-personnel mines (50 per cent of the total) had been destroyed, and said he was already between four and six years ahead off the target set by the Ottowa agreement.

Mr Dalyell wanted to know "what sort of figure does our country cut in the outside world?" by our failure to ratify the treaty, but was told that parliamentary time had to be found in the legislative programme before we could sign up.

Labour backbenchers have become more gung-ho on defence even than the regular Tory "Colonel Blimps", such as Keith Simpson, taking up his position on the opposition frontbench as a newly promoted lance corporal in William Hague's recent reshuffle.

We had the splendid Andrew Mackinlay (Lab, Thurrock) wanting a "replacement programme for aircraft carriers and amphibious lift"; John Hutton (Lab, Barrow and Furness) wanting these mass-produced in his constituency and David Borrow (Lab, Ribble South) engaged in gunboat diplomacy calling on troops to be sent hither and thither all over the Persian Gulf.

Robert Key, another opposition frontbench defence spokesman, was concerned about the image of our soldiers in Cyprus. They are currently confined to barracks, after several idiots spoilt an otherwise cushy number of sand, sea and sex for the garrison, by going on drunken binges in local bars in recent years. Mr Key hopes they would soon lose "their tabloid image of indulgence" which was unfair on the overwhelming majority of sober squaddies.

Mr Reid was emphatic in making it clear that the forces in Cyprus were under the media spotlight and there would be no tolerance of indiscipline. "The many are having to suffer for the irresponsible actions of the few", he told MPs.

The House moved on to housekeeping matters before preparing for the vote on the age of consent.

Ann Taylor, Leader of the House of Commons, responsible for the customs and comforts of MPs, their bars, cleanliness of their lavatories and the like, had to face David Winnick (Lab, Walsall North) calling for an end to the "wigs, gowns and swords". These accessories are required uniforms for Commons clerks and the Serjeant at Arms.

Mrs Taylor was non-committal and faced a fierce defence of these traditions from Sir Patrick Cormack, deputy opposition leader. He condemned Mr Winnick for his "drab uniformity" and will fight to retain the historic customs and traditions of the House should new Labour dare to undermine them.

Sir Patrick is one of the finest parliamentarians who is in the chamber every day. He has finally been found a role that suits him. I wish the Tories had used him more when they were in government.