Questionable performance by the Diva from Hell

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The Independent Online
This is a story of a row. Not a row as in fight or struggle - but a row of seats. To be precise the third row up, below the gangway on the government side of the Chamber. And it's a story of the men who sit there.

At 2.30 yesterday there were only a couple of bottoms parked on this row - the leanest of which belonged to the MP for Gravesham, Jacques Arnold. But why was he there at all? This was Northern Ireland questions and most sensible folk flee before the various factions and their mainland sympathisers get stuck in. My own theory is that he has an arrangement with David Mellor, whereby one remains in the House whenever the other is absent. As a consequence, Mr Arnold is never able to get away. Which is a shame for a man who lists his only recreation as "Family".

A former junior minister, Mr Arnold is too modest. He has at least two other hobbies - asking questions and shouting. Both of which allow him to employ his most notable attribute - his remarkable voice. This sounds like an adenoidal buzz-saw with gears. In first it emits a whine which can scare slugs off lettuces at 200 yards. In higher gears his voice becomes inescapable and unbearable - like a showstopping aria by the Diva from Hell.

At 3.07pm, Mr Arnold was called to ask a question. On the order paper it was supposed to be about the flying over Irish police stations, North and South, of Union flags and tricolours. But, putting the saw into second, Mr Arnold contrived this: "Has the minister received any request to fly the European flag over RUC stations?" This was greeted by one of those guffaws that passes for amusement in the House, and he sat down with a satisfied smile.

By now, with Prime Minister's questions fast approaching, bench three was filling up. Two along was old Etonian Sir Archie Hamilton, former PPS to Mrs Thatcher in the Glory Days, and now consigned to the backbenches - his long and thickening form slumped languidly on the upholstery, alternately yawning and heckling Opposition women MPs.

On his right sat Richard Tracey, JP, MP (Surbiton). Co-author of "Hickstead: the first twelve years", Mr Tracey's moment came in the mid-eighties when he was Minister of Sport. And then it went again. He has a large face, but rather tiny features which perch almost arbitrarily somewhere near the middle. It reminds one of a map of Saskatchewan or Alberta, where huge expanses of Canadian prairie are punctuated by small conurbations, placed there for no obvious reason. Like Jacques Arnold, Mr Tracey is a regular attender; unlike him, he says little.

Three fifteen and Jacques was first on the order paper to ask the PM a question. As old hands in the press gallery reached for the ear-plugs, the buzz-saw invited Mr Major to agree that Labour local government was expensive and bad value. Archie and Richard nodded. Mr Arnold sat down. Mr Major, prepared for this friendly question, rattled off a statistic or two. And there they remained through the rest of a surprisingly low- key session. Richard kept bobbing up and trying to catch the Speaker's eye almost as though he had fallen asleep, but had forgotten to tell his legs. Archie and Jacques heckled the rather pathetic attempt by Labour's Bridget Prentice (Lewisham E) to flog the dead horse of a Heseltine leadership challenge, but their hearts weren't in it.

Four o'clock and all three were still there, whence by now nearly all but they had fled. Three ex-ministers, seventeen years into the Conservative era, desultorily interrupting the shadow leader of the House, Ann Taylor from bench three. Waiting.