The Sketch: Muzzled Widdecombe cornered by The Millbank Hunt

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST matter to arise in Home Office questions was the Government's tagging initiative but Labour MPs were far more interested in Mr Hague's gagging initiative, an experimental programme designed to allow Ann Widdecombe to lead a useful life in the community, but which will automatically ring an alarm bell in central office if she utters the words "fox", "hounds" or "unconscionable savagery in this day and age".

Labour MPs already exhilarated by the breeze of radicalism stirred up by Mr Blair's statement on fox-hunting were even more refreshed to find that the Conservatives' most effective saboteur had been disabled over the weekend.

So when Ms Widdecombe eventually got to her feet, to rasp her cheese- grater voice across the House's sensibilities, she was greeted by Labour MPs with a raucous tally-ho. Some members imitated hunting horns, others simply cried "halloo" at the sight of the prey.

Ms Widdecombe paused briefly to scent the air, then moved onward: "The Minister", she said, "will be aware of the story that emerged over the weekend". "Yes! Yes!" shouted Labour hunt followers, urging their frontbench hounds onwards. Unfortunately we had to beat across quite a bit of dull country before we picked up the trail again.

Ms Widdecombe wanted to know whether ministers had been aware of threats made by the convicted terrorist Patrick Magee before his early release. It wasn't Magee at all, replied Geoff Hoon, and besides he wouldn't comment even if she got the name right.

Then there was a rather boggy detour into questions of electoral reform, enlivened only by a splendidly irascible contribution from Eric Forth, who gave the impression he thought it had all been downhill since the introduction of universal suffrage and that anything to cut the numbers making it to the polling booths was to be encouraged.

Perhaps they might even be located at the centre of mazes, to ensure that only genuinely determined citizens would exercise their democratic rights. Jack Straw shrugged off his intervention quite easily, gently reminding Mr Forth that it had been more than 100 years since the electoral arrangements had been looked at and that "life has moved on since then".

His colleague Paul Boateng had a much harder time, though, with a question from Andrew Mackinlay from his own side. Mr Mackinlay wanted to know why British Transport Police didn't have powers of arrest outside their own jurisdiction and he was so fierce about the matter that it looked as if he might seize Mr Boateng in a half-Nelson and march him down to the local station on charges of wasting public money.

Even the thick and unguent ointment of Mr Boateng's manner couldn't quite salve the sting here, though he tried, raising his eyebrows and smiling suavely, as if it was Mr Mackinlay who should be embarrassed by this little outburst, and not its target.

Then, at last, we were back to the hunt, with Geoff Hoon confirming to the House that the Government was "actively considering how to take this matter forward". Labour were cheerfully provocative, Conservatives genuinely indignant.

Douglas Hogg was the first up on the Conservative side and the first MP to draw a comparison between the Government's release of convicted terrorists and its prospective imprisonment of innocent fox-hunters, but he wasn't the last; Michael Colvin got up to highlight this entirely theoretical irony too.

Neither man made the obvious logical leap - that both issues might be resolved to their satisfaction if future terrorist releases took place in the Quantocks of Somerset - ten minutes downwind of a well- regulated pack of hounds.