The Sketch: An awful lot of beef over pork barrels, Bills and bananas

A FEW DAYS ago, the House of Commons was assured that the armed forces were doing their bit to chew Britain out of the beef crisis. At barracks throughout the land, members were told, British beef was on the menu and steady progress was being made ethnically to cleanse the outsourcing of pork products.

Yesterday, the Opposition asked the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, to enlist the sick and the old in this masticatory campaign to save the nation's bacon. Would hospitals also be required to adjust their tenders to help the British pig industry out of its current dismal wallow? As a consumer of pig meat himself, Mr Brown replied, he would advise all consumers to look for a Union Flag before handing over their cash.

They were talking about diet in the House of Lords too, relatively innocuously at first, with a brief exchange of views about the Caribbean banana industry, currently the subject of a charitable intervention by the European Union and a very uncharitable retaliation from the United States, which has its own banana republics to defend. This was very shortsighted, suggested Baroness Williams, since the only agricultural alternative to this innocuous fruit were cash crops that the United States government likes a great deal less: "Yes, we have no bananas" they would soon be singing to a calypso lilt, "there's only cocaine today."

The more serious dietary question, though, related to the Government's proposals to ram Millbank-approved candidates down the throats of local constituencies, by means of the feeding funnel known as the closed list system. The Lords were debating, for the fourth time, an amendment to the European Elections Bill which would replace this unpopular device with an open list alternative. There was a certain rich irony in the spectacle of an entirely unelected chamber, many of whose members owe their presence to accident of birth alone, taking the moral high ground in a question of electoral procedure. Indeed this paradox forms a large plank of the Government's argument in defence of its proposals. The only plank, in truth, since all the others are too rotten to display in public.

It is a mark of their embarrassment over this issue that Lord MacKay was able to make his opening speech supporting the motion, citing only Labour MPs and MEPs and an article from the Mirror. The closed list was a threat to the genuine independence of MPs, he suggested, who would find themselves beholden not to local constituents but to senior party managers, who could then use their powers to bully the recalcitrant into silence.

As if to illustrate his argument Baroness Jay then tried to rule against Lord Shore, when he found himself rising from his seat at the same time as another Labour peer. But on this occasion, at least, the independent spirit prevailed, assisted by an indignant hubbub from Tory peers. This was a simple matter, Lord Shore explained, of "the electorate versus the selectorate". He would keep faith with the former.

Even those who supported the Government couldn't muster a moral argument between them - the first two speeches to urge peers to reject the amendment were at pains to point out that they thought the closed list system was quite wrong, and that only their belief in the supremacy of the elected chamber had overcome their misgivings. "How many times can we ask them to think again?" said Lord Barnett, morosely. His question was answered quite quickly, at least one more time, though that won't alter the end result.

Whips will crack in the Commons and as Earl Russell had warned earlier, the party managers will get their pork barrels. At least he can take comfort in the fact that it will be British pork that fills them.

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