The Sketch: Rare sauce that gives a bite to stodgy Commons fare

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The Independent Online
THE ANCIENT Greeks used to divide foodstuffs into two fundamental categories: sitos and opson. The former was the staple and the latter was the relish or the flavouring you would eat with it.

This useful distinction between the basic fodder which keeps you going and the elements which actually make it a pleasure to eat applies to the House too, a place in which opson is pretty scarce, and thus highly prized. If you want sitos, on the other hand, then the chamber is a positive cornucopia - every time an MP rises to call out the number of an oral question and every time ministers answer it from the prepared statements in their briefing books, you can pretty much guarantee that a ladleful of parliamentary carbohydrate is about to slop onto your plate; important, perhaps, significant to someone certainly, but scarcely a taste sensation. You might call this bread-and-butter politics, except that would make it sound far too delicious. Think of unsalted potatoes or oatmeal mash and you'll be closer to its combination of substance and lack of savour.

Mostly these belly-filling staples are served with an accompanying dab of something piquant. The supplementary questions will usually be a little spicier, a little more stinging in their effects. Indeed those occasions when they aren't - mostly when Labour sub-prefects decide that a single serving of tasteless obsequiousness isn't enough - often result in a disgruntled moan from parliamentary diners.

Fortunately there are also several members who serve the function of permanent sauce dispensers. Dennis Skinner is one of them, unfailingly in his place, just across a gangway from the Front Bench, ready to throw in a dash of something Northern and vinegary - you could think of him as an unusually fiery brand of piccalilli. As it happens, he was in an uncharacteristically doughy mood yesterday during questions on Culture, Media and Sport, asking the minister to consider the claims of former coalfield areas for lottery funds.

So mild was he in his manner that Chris Smith felt bold enough to feed him the fact that people in Barnsley only have pounds 17 a head of lottery funds spent on them, as opposed to an average of pounds 70 a head elsewhere, an invidious titbit which he will probably find thrown back at him in coming months.

Mr Smith is definitely a staple food rather than a relish, his words regularly interspersed with a mechanical "um" which is reminiscent of that chattery thing teleprinters used to do when they were waiting for fresh information to come down the line. But the fact that he is a bit stodgy doesn't really matter; he brings his own condiment with him in the shape of Tony Banks. As a front bencher it is Mr Banks's job to be as bland as he can, but he continues to find it commendably difficult.

Mr Mandelson, yesterday answering questions on the Dome, also counts as opson rather than sitos, though in a way that might escape the coarser palate. His presence in the Chamber always adds flavour to the proceedings but it isn't always easy to say why. He doesn't tell many jokes, for instance, although he has a way about him which suggests that he's just heard a rather good one about everyone present and isn't going to pass it on. Nor is he very good at the kind of nimble retaliation which always helps MPs to clear their plates, whichever side of the House they're on.

The session ended on a pungently fishy note, even so, when Lawrie Quinn "put in a plea for Whitby kippers" to be served in the Millennium Dome. Mr Mandelson happily seconded their excellence, perhaps forgetting that he serves a fishing constituency which might have rival claims to kippery supremacy. I hope he doesn't find he has to eat his words - with sauce or without.