The Sketch: Redwood turns up the heat but fails to roast Mandelson

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IT WAS reported in several papers yesterday that technologists had developed a new turbo-oven, which could roast a chicken in just four minutes, using a combination of intense gusts of superheated air from above and blasts of microwave energy from below. I imagine that shadow ministers will have read about this item with a certain amount of envy - the administration of an instant scorching being the ultimate ambition of any Tory front-bencher facing his opposite half across the despatch boxes.

Yesterday, John Redwood was doing his best to heat up Peter Mandelson and it didn't seem inconceivable that he was trying to use exactly the principles employed in the new device. This may just be a fantasy, of course.

Mr Redwood's somewhat mechanical manner does occasionally raise the possibility that he is the result of a secret liaison between a microwave oven and a tailor's dummy. That may have prejudiced my perceptions.

But it did look as if he had consciously borrowed from the turbo-oven's double-whammy approach. He directed what was evidently intended to be searing sarcasm at the Secretary of State, welcoming him to his first question session at his new department, before going on to press him on the exact details of trade union reform, a subject which he knows is likely to generate a certain amount of warming friction on the Labour benches.

Then Mr Redwood turned on the microwave. Microwaves could be said to insinuate temperature into the food and insinuation was what Mr Redwood was at. "Honesty is the best policy - in all things," he concluded, the heavy emphasis on his last three words making it clear that this was an allusion to recent press speculation about Mr Mandelson's private life. It didn't work of course.

He had forgotten that Mr Mandelson is a kind of anti-microwave oven - quite capable of lowering the temperature around him in an instant. Maintaining a chill is not a great problem for him, even when the ambient temperature begins to rise detectably. Then a Liberal-Democrat pointed out that only 194 people had been trained as Millennium Bug-busters and that if this rate of progress was kept up the full complement would only be ready by 2050.

This was a rather good point and Mr Mandelson's internal thermostat spiked momentarily ("Well, if the previous administration," he began, a betrayal of fluster which was greeted as an old friend by Tory backbenchers).

But then he recovered, fans whirring to restore normal temperature settings: the Government had acted "with great alacrity" he insisted, the sort of exaggeration which he seems fond of at moments of stress. In the end it was not he who overheated but Mr Redwood, irritatedly snapping at the Secretary of State for "peddling false rumours" about Conservative party policy. What on earth does he think he's paid for?

Mr Redwood should have stuck around for Business Questions, where a more venerable and efficient method of raising blisters was demonstrated by Dennis Skinner.

Mr Skinner is nothing as new-fangled as a microwave - if anything he's an old-fashioned plumber's blowtorch, but still capable of fierce calorific output.

Yesterday he turned the gas up in seconding Opposition requests for an early debate on the report on proportional representation, or "these tinpot Jenkins' proposals", as he put it.

"You need two bottles of claret in order to be able to digest them," he declared contemptuously, a remark that seemed to provoke a sudden interest in constitutional reform amongst several Tory backbenchers.

This wasn't Mr Skinner's highest flame setting by any means. When he goes to maximum, clerks enter the chamber with asbestos blankets. But even so he left Mr Redwood's attempts at combustion looking distinctly underpowered.