THE BSE RISK : True-blue yeomen united in their resolve to quell the `u rban panic'

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The Independent Online
With two more statements due on BSE and cows, some Tories entered the Commons contemplating the worst. Before their minds' eyes floated visions of those terrible bonfires, fed by the blackened, bloated carcasses of dumb animals. How many would be slaughtered - all of them? Or just those with majorities under 10,000?

Their morale was lifted by the first statement, from Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health. In an age when scientists themselves are increasingly reticent to claim too much, Mr Dorrell is unfashionably convinced of their infallibility. Having met all weekend the Advisory Council (consisting of large numbers of -ologists, -itionists and common or garden -ists) had decided that there was no more risk to children from beef than there was to adults. So there we were. Science had spoken. All that remained was to allocate more money for more science.

Harriet Harman's role, by contrast, was that of champion of the consumer, and she played it perfectly. Her voice took on the querulous timbre of the pushy customer returning shoddy goods to a sleepy shop assistant. Why hadn't this been done? And what about that? Call this a government, she certainly wouldn't be shopping here again, and nor would any of her friends.

Throughout her speech Tory backbenchers showed her the traditional courtesies displayed by Englishmen of a certain age to women who argue with them. "Stupid cow", shouted Tony Marlow (Northampton N), as Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) and others guffawed assent. It was only one of many ruderies, but Hattie ploughed on. Her act may not be pretty, but she certainly has guts.

Up spake Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire S). Wasn't all this just an example of "urban panic, and a crude attempt to create a steak-rejecting society?" Mr Cormack, who looks as though he has never rejected a steak in his life -or any other foodstuff for that matter - had put his finger on the real divide. The resolute yeomen of the country, red in tooth and claw, versus the effete townies, mincing around supermarkets avoiding mince.

As if to prove him right, Labour's Joe Ashton (urban panic, Bassetlaw) asked about pet food. Tories giggled: were Fifi the poodle and Nefertiti, the Siamese, at risk? His colleague Angela Eagle (urban panic, Wallasey) claimed that the BSE business had "scared every member of the public".

"I prefer the scientific advice of a former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University [Professor Southwood] to that of the honourable lady", said Mr Dorrell.

Ah, but don't be holding too much with them scientists, warned Tory Theresa Gorman (resolute yeoman, Billericay), contradicting the Secretary of State. Eight years ago their pathetic worriting over salmonella "had caused the death of over a million chickens", she said. All that unfulfilled potential, those eggs unlaid, those ovine novels unwritten. Tears streamed down the sentimental faces of many of those sitting around her.

Sir Anthony Grant (resolute. yeoman Cambridgeshire SW), his still-wet moustache bristling, condemned "the hypochondrical hysteria" of the media. There was in Conservative Britain today, he said, a greater risk of being murdered or winning the lottery than of dying from Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease. What everybody needed, he almost added, was a cold shower and a cross- country run. Followed by a good lunch.

His rubicund colleague Tim Yeo (Suffolk S) agreed. Condemning "hysterical over-reaction" he issued a portentous warning, "if the British beef industry is destroyed voters in those rural constituencies will know who to blame". And all of a sudden the Tories, who had begun to look a little more cheerful, relapsed into gloom.