Sketch: Arrogant Jack in the land of milk and honey

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The Independent Online
THE full scale of the changed circumstances of the Commons, since I was unceremoniously dismissed by the voters of Cleethorpes last year, finally struck home yesterday during agriculture questions when I saw a Labour MP (Rudi Vis) representing the London constituency of Finchley asking a question on agriculture.

I only ever record the Member for Finchley being a fearsome Conservative lady who answered questions as Prime Minister.

This alone reminded me that where once sat tired, middle-aged Conservative ministers ruling complacently and arrogantly, there now sit ... well ... tired, middle-aged Labour ministers ruling complacently and arrogantly.

And they do not come more complacent than Jack Cunningham, the Minister for Agriculture, who was on parade yesterday. He is a long-serving, decent, moderate, old-Labour, middle-aged cove for whom complacency is an art form.

With a little effort he is also making satisfactory progress in the arrogance stakes. Not quite rivalling the Lord Chancellor he has, nevertheless, already spent a small fortune of public money on a new, grand, departmental office and banned beef-on-the-bone while leaving his junior minister, Jeff Rooker, to take the rap in a rowdy Commons debate while he had a quick snifter in the Members' smoking room.

His opposite number on the Tory side, Michael Jack, a former middle-ranking agriculture minister who knows the technicalities of the subject well, challenged the department on its arrogance and complacency.

Those of us who have represented agricultural constituencies rarely know anything about the subject when we are first elected, but learn to cover our farmyard tracks by mastering the mass of technical jargon: green pound; devaluation; monetary compensatory amounts; sheepmeat regime; selective beef cull and so on.

Yesterday, the terminology overwhelmed my powers of concentration. I started with a jolt when Don Touhig (Lab, Islwyn) quizzed Jeff Rooker about something called the "cattle traceability scheme". Thinking this was some novel way to catch Daisy or Buttercup if they escaped down the lane, it turned out to be something to do with bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the beef ban.

The air was thick with technicalities. Nigel Beard (Lab, Bexleyheath and Crayford) was concerned about the Varroa Jacobsoni mite which is killing all our bees. He was reassured that in this Blairite land of milk and honey there is a "viable UK honey programme".

Michael Jack and junior minister Elliot Morley got in a convoluted exchange about agri-monetary compensation, while Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Con, Cotswold) was in a stew about vitamin B6.

Gordon Prentice (Lab, Pendle) was concerned about low-level antibiotics as a prophylactic and predicted biological Armageddon.

Few members attend agriculture question time except those who want a comfortable favourite ringside seat - Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover) and Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough); those who wanted to rest their eyes - Peter Pike (Lab, Burnley); and those unfortunate to have signed a question form two weeks earlier in the Members' tea room when it was thrust under their nose by an energetic whip.

There is only one rule in agriculture questions any member need to remember: farmers are always grumbling. Never believe them. Ministers' heads are always on the block in the eyes of the National Farmers' Union. They complained throughout the Tory rule; they will complain throughout Labour's rule.

Thus it was, as now, and shall be ever more.

Michael Brown is the former Tory MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes

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