Sharp suits and preposterous parroting

Click to follow
Very few MPs arouse in me such visceral hostility as does the Government's new "Exchequer Secretary" (when did that job get created?), young Philip Oppenheim. For years Phil has been described, by the desperate young ladies of the rapidly shrinking Young Conservatives, as the hottest piece of male totty in the Tory Party. He is sexier even than Brian Mawhinney.

With every visible skin surface covered in Perma-tan, blond hair swept back to try and disguise a bald spot whose eventual victory is certain and Philip Schofield teeth, Mr Oppenheim's sixth-form voice and Jemima Goldsmith accent have always got right up my nose. He reminds me of a junior doctor in a particularly unconvincing hospital soap, transmitted by a cheap cable company. So what I am about to say pains me deeply. For yesterday, on his debut appearance on the Treasury front bench, Oppenheim won. This confection of sharp suits, ideological vacuity and Thatch-erite triumphalism managed to look authentic when compared with some of the men opposite.

This was as much their fault as it was his. In July the slogan "New Labour, New Danger" was dropped into almost every junior ministerial speech, reply or press release. It drove everyone mad, not least because it was so pointless. Who, other than a catatonic handful of fellow MPs, was going to hear such preposterous parrotings? They would not be shown on television or reported in newspapers. Yet they managed to lower the standard of discourse from an already subterranean level. One began to wonder whether many Tories were not on some bizarre form of piece rate.

Now it's Labour's turn, with their new hit, "Enough is Enough". Invented by some agency for the autumn campaign, this phrase was being tested to destruction by frontbench spokesthings, one of the allegedly brightest of whom, Alan Milburn (Darlington), was - like Oppenheim - making his debut. With his thick hair slicked back a la Mandelson, Mr Milburn is the very model of a modern Labour general, and he rose to tell Kenneth Clarke, as Gordon Brown had the day before, that Britain was ninth in something and eleventh in something else. And that therefore, "Enough is Enough"!

Barely five minutes had elapsed before the number four on the Treasury team, Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire North and another rising star) got up to ask about VAT, concluding that "Enough is Enough!" Now I have met Mr O'Brien; he is a relatively thoughtful man, but here he was acting like some brain-dead backbencher. Why?

The answer became apparent later, during Prime Minister's Question Time. Tony Blair, caressing the dispatch box as is his wont (I know at least one journalist who fantasises about taking the place of that box), had delivered his two forensic queries about BSE - designed to remind us all of last spring's Tory posturing about forcing Europe to eat our beef - and was moving in for the killer bite; the one they always show on the television news. "And that's why", he thundered, "the people of this country are saying `Enough is Enough'." As he repeated it, I felt my brain swell up inside my skull.

John Major - sensing the mood - was deep in synthetic dudgeon. The Labour leader was guilty of "irrelevant, juvenile sloganising", he retorted. Presumably "New Labour, New Danger" (with which the PM went along quite happily), was somehow relevant, adult and analytical - a proper slogan.

Up stood Mr John Austin-Walker (Labour, Woolwich), a man lacking in what condom makers would call "supreme sensitivity". "Enough is Enough", he said. Hnnnnggggh.