THE SKETCH: Dunwoody extends welcome - with a blow to the gullet

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE a new under-minister. Her name is - what is her name? I had it a minute ago. She is responsible for the whale industry. Sketch writers rejoice! She has a mild speech impediment! It's the little things that make us happy in the gallery.

Actually, it may be the wail industry she runs. She said there was a wail wegulator and even I concede we need one of them, if only to keep the volume of wailing down.

She started very promisingly. "The government pwefers the date of 2020 to the stated date of 2017 but that doesn't mean we won't pwogwess as we pwoceed," she said.

It's not easy talking like that. I'm putting her up for this year's anthology of political quotations.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the chairman of the Transport committee welcomed her to her new place on the front bench with a straight-fingered blow to the gullet.

We'd heard how twain opewators had been weporting the weasonable steps they'd taken to pwovide disabled twavellers with step-fwee access to twains. Mrs Dunwoody pointed out that train operators' priorities lay elsewhere, that there were fewer platform staff than under British Rail, and that very often there were no lifts, no help and no way of getting from one side of the platform to the other.

"Over half of the stations are step-fwee," the under-minister insisted stupidly, and then, "what we are doing is mapping the stations to assure disabled people their needs will be met."

No they're not! What they're doing is telling them where their needs will not be met! Brilliant! She'll go far. Mind you, she's already come further than she should.

Tam Dalyell asked a technical question in his fiercest and most impressive manner. It was answered absent-mindedly by Alistair Darling in his somnambulist's monotone.

Mr Dalyell's bite is only as good as his bark when he remembers to put his teeth in. Luckily, he had another go during the Duchy of Lancaster's questions and he made everyone laugh. "On what topic did Lord Birt make his most useful contribution?"

In the face of much parliamentary laughter, Alan Milburn (looking a lot less cocky than usual, I am afraid I have to report) gave an answer that was so drained of enthusiasm as to sound quite contemptuous. Lord Birt "makes a range of useful policy suggestions" apparently, "and we take an interest in the advice he gives".

Mr Milburn refused to concede "in any way, shape or form," the anti-Semitic flavour of his Fagin billboards. He said they weren't anti-Semitic they were anti-Tory. Ah, my dears! You got to pick a pocket or two.

In the Press Association e-mail inbox yesterday morning there were, I was reliably informed, a dozen advertisements for Viagra followed by a press release saying: "Members not standing at the next election: Tam Dalyell".

We shall miss him. Won't we? Let's not argue about it now.