The Sketch: E-commerce minister is slow to download and so Tories log off

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The Independent Online
"IT'S THE e-conomy, stupid" Mr Blair reportedly joked the other day at the CBI conference. His attempt at humour fell rather flat, probably because hyphens aren't exactly easy to pronounce - the only thing you can do to register their presence is to hesitate in a rather nerdish way, exactly as you would do if signalling a dodgy pun to a stupid person, none of which adds to the charm of the gag. MPs have not learnt the lesson the Prime Minister selflessly provided, though.

During trade and industry questions yesterday, Denis MacShane ventured a similar play on words during a question to Patricia Hewitt. Mr MacShane pointed out that she was Europe's very first "e-commerce minister" and then observed that the Trade and Industry front bench might be thought of as an "e-rogenous zone". Ms Hewitt looked slightly startled at this compliment but then rose to thank Mr MacShane, both for that line and for the complimentary remarks about her appointment that he'd also posted on BBC Online. Mr MacShane grinned bashfully as Tory MPs made it clear that they thought this was an e-metic bit of brown-nosing.

But it does seem to be a rather appropriate new job for Ms Hewitt. Her Treasury post bought out the primary school teacher in her - one of those who don't really care much for children but pride themselves on their capacity to suppress naughtiness and high spirits.

Here, though, you can see a different side of her. As Angela Browning vainly tried to extract a straight answer about government spending on small business training, it was a little like watching an amateur web- surfing for the very first time. Download times are achingly slow - as Ms Hewitt scrolls through the standard clutter of a ministerial answer you wait patiently, hoping that the revelation will come, somewhere in the blank space at the bottom of the screen. But it rarely does - you have to click another link to yet another site. And what makes it even more infuriating than a conventional Internet search is that there is no "Stop" button. Type in the wrong word at any point and you just have to sit it out while the Hewitt search engine responds - even if it is with that most grindingly tedious of sites, We'll-take-no-lessons-from- the-opposition.co.uk. In the end, hardly surprisingly, Mrs Browning gave up and logged off.

Earlier, Alan Duncan had expressed his frustration in a more familiar way, as he attempted to get the Government's draft bill on e-commerce to function more quickly: "Part Three must be removed! That is what we demand!" he shouted. A computer-generated voice from the other side of the dispatch box warned him, with maddening evenness, that processing times could not be improved simply by shouting at the mainframe.

Alan Johnson, also new on the DTI Front Bench, represented a more venerable communications technology. He used to be a postman, a career he alluded to after getting temporarily lost in his briefing book. "I used to be much quicker when I was delivering" he said, an aside which demonstrated that the old nimbleness had not entirely deserted him. Mr Johnson did well at the dispatch box, defending the minimum-wage legislation against non-existent Tory attacks with a vigour that obviously endeared him to his colleagues: "Trying to explain social justice to the party opposite", he said, "is like trying to explain origami to a penguin."

Indeed, he did rather better than his boss, Stephen Byers, who was so unsettled by his one unique flare of rhetoric ("the honourable member called it a 'cretinous idea'. Well, he should know") that he ended up addressing Miss Boothroyd as Madame Deputy Speaker. Several Tory puppies, some of whom have had their noses smacked recently by Miss Boothroyd, yapped noisily at this solecism but Mr Byers didn't even know he'd made a mistake until Ms Hewitt leaned sideways and bleeped the relevant error message into his ear.

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