The Sketch: Hellfire sermon on tobacco leaves House in difficulty

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The Independent Online
SOME ADDICTIONS last longer than others, it seems. Yesterday's session in Parliament was dominated by the Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, in a hellfire sermon about the demon weed.

But it began with a tax history lesson in which Willie Ross, the Ulster Unionist Party MP for Londonderry East, pointed out, during a discussion of hypothecation, that income tax had originally been hypothecated too, after it was introduced in the 1890s for the express purpose of building battleships.

Tory backbenchers roared approvingly. It may have been, of course, that they were applauding this pertinent footnote - a fair warning that ring- fenced taxes are rarely safe for long from those ravening wolves in the Treasury. But it sounded more like the nostalgic groan of a former 40- a-day man when someone describes the tarry delights of an unfiltered Capstan. Battleships! God, weren't they marvellous! Gave them up long ago, you know, though it took a while. Had to wean myself on to light cruisers first (barely like having a battleship at all, to be honest) and then kicked the habit altogether.

Patricia Hewitt, the Labour MP for Leicester West, interrupted their happy memories of the days when you could buy 10 dreadnoughts and still have change out of 2m guineas, to venture a correction. She had always been under the impression that income tax had been introduced to pay for the Napoleonic wars.

Tory members faltered slightly. Should they be against Bonaparte or for him? Perhaps he counted as a proto-Pinochet, a military statesman whose detention counted as an unconscionable act of prejudice against strong leadership. On the other hand, hadn't he been a rather dogmatic advocate of European union, tax harmonisation and all?

The House staggered back to the present day, or at least that erratic simulation of it offered by questions to the Chancellor. Target of the day for the Opposition was the Paymaster-General, Geoffrey Robinson.

It looks as if Mr Robinson has already lost some of his civil servants; where other ministers come to the dispatch box with a neatly arranged ring binder, replies and witticisms colour-coded for instant reference, the Paymaster-General has only an untidy sheaf of crumpled papers. Perhaps his political troubles arise out of nothing more blameworthy than simple muddle. He didn't mean to sell that company to Mr Maxwell at all, just signed the wrong bit of paper by mistake.

Stephen Byers, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described Mr Robinson as a "highly effective minister" and declared that he looked forward to working with him "for many months to come". Tory members jeered happily at the circumspection of this forecast. Mr Byers can bluff with the best of them, but he knew that "many years" would have been pushing it.

Then it was time for a breath of fresh air. Frank Dobson rose to read out an uncompromising statement on the evils of tobacco.

Most Tories found themselves in some difficulty. Since smoking hits the poor and the dispossessed hardest you might argue that it's not just anti-social, but anti- socialist.

But it doesn't do to say this aloud and it has to be left to the true zealots of the free-market to man the barricades for the drug-dealers.

There is always one to oblige, and yesterday it was Eric Forth, the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, asking the Health Secretary whether the loss of tax revenues had been taken into account. Never mind the fact that golden goose eggs are killing up to 120,000 taxpayers a year, that 24-carat bird must be protected.