Sketch: Dobson and Doris let battle commence

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The Independent Online
GIRL POWER may be on the on the wane in pop, but yesterday it made a dramatic and much-needed reappearance on the Opposition front bench.

Ann Widdecombe, the newly-appointed shadow health secretary, certainly spiced up a Tory team which hitherto has given Frank Dobson and his colleagues an easy ride.

The return of Doris Karloff (a moniker she now uses herself) attracted a high attendance on both sides of the chamber, underlining her new status as a political star, probably only one of about six Tories anyone would recognise outside the Commons.

If the Tory reshuffle still has one foot in the past, the Widdecombe promotion promises, on yesterday's evidence, to stick the stiletto into Labour's softest spot, its vulnerability on health pledges.

Popular even among Tory MPs for the destruction of her former Home Office boss Michael Howard, she was received warmly by the House because of her undoubted integrity and that redoubtable style, so devoid of any notion of spin-doctoring.

She couldn't wait to get stuck in. But the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, kept her on tenterhooks as - on three occasions - she tried to launch her bulk at the despatch box. Finally, she got going.

Frank Dobson rose equally well to the occasion. He survived the Widdecombe taunts with a bluff, honest but apologetic approach to the waiting-list saga of broken promises.

Welcoming Ms Widdecombe, he referred to their "matching accessories" and the fact that neither "count as being from the fashionable end of politics".

Indeed, it was a pleasure to see these two old warhorses trading blows. Both believe in old-fashioned thug politics, where punching below the belt is a pleasure.

Like old bull elephants jousting in the jungle, there was a lot of crashing of branches but little in the way of blood and gore. Both were too seasoned as politicians to be floored by the other. But it was great entertainment, and offered the promise of better to come. This is a show that could run and run.

Unlike Labour's female hordes, Ms Widdecombe's attention to dress sense is minimal. But a new hairstyle (if pudding basin can be so described) with a darker than usual shade of black complemented a blue Laura Ashley sack with a well-cut powder blue jacket. Ms Widdecombe had brought along her pet terrier Alan Duncan to snap, bark and nip the ankles of Mr Dobson's junior ministers. Mr Duncan is, like most terriers, brave and fearless and will, with practice, get under the skin of Labour ministers.

But the new Tory dream team was let down, as ever, by inept support from their own side.

Stephen Day (Cheadle) made a song and dance about Labour placemen on health boards. Mr Dobson reminded him that invitations to MPs to nominate representatives had been sent out but Mr Day "was either too idle or too careless to respond".

Ms Widdecombe slightly spoilt her big day by grumping to the Speaker that two Labour MPs had used their questions to make derogatory references to her hard-line approach as prisons minister - which included support for shackling pregnant women prisoners during labour.

But she should not be ashamed of her fearsome image; neither should she complain. She should wear as a badge of honour the fact that Labour MPs believe she would willingly sacrifice all their first born.

Michael Brown is the former Tory MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes