The Sketch: Redwood's back to see Prescott completely off the rails as

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The Independent Online
"BYE BYE, bye bye," shouted Labour backbenchers as Gillian Shephard rose to speak during environment questions. The tone was one of reflective derision, but there wasn't much sting since Mrs Shephard has known she was going for months and acknowledged that she was on "borrowed time" with an attractive levity of spirit.

With sunlight pouring through the high windows of the chamber it was a day on which almost anybody would have longed to be out of office and Mrs Shephard had good reason to feel demob happy. She spent some time congratulating John Prescott on his observance of parliamentary protocol and courtesies and ended by wishing him "interesting encounters" with her successor.

He didn't have very long to wait since John Redwood was in the chamber already, preparing to respond to Mr Prescott's statement on the future of London Underground. Some might think this a rather daunting task - being obliged, after what could only have been a few hours' preparation, to pick holes in the Government's case. But Mr Redwood has an approach to his job that proved perfectly adaptable to the circumstances. When in doubt load the Gatling gun with insults and lock your finger on the trigger. It hardly matters if most of the shots go wide - the sheer noise and rate of fire should make the enemy wary of sticking their heads up too high.

Mr Redwood was reported to be slightly miffed at his shadow cabinet transfer - but there must be a part of him that relishes the prospect of a new sparring partner, particularly one as high profile as Mr Prescott. Since the departure of Peter Mandelson from the Department of Trade and Industry he had been visibly pining, like a zoo panda deprived of its favourite soft toy. His coat lost its lustre and his eyes their characteristic manic sparkle. But now he has an object worth batting around the cage a bit.

I don't know whether Mr Prescott felt edgy at having to face a new antagonist but his trademark gabble seemed to have accelerated even further. At times he went so fast that I began to wonder whether there were representatives of The Guinness Book of Records in the public gallery.

Currently, I believe, the records for speed-speaking are held by tobacco auctioneers in the southern United States, professionals who clearly have an advantage over Mr Prescott - it being easier to negotiate the rising price of a bale of Virginia prime leaf than to make your way over the hurdles of a statement about public/private partnerships for the Underground. But I wouldn't bet against the challenger. Mr Prescott can cover pages at an amazing rate, largely because he strips out all hindering factors - such as punctuation, word endings and comprehensibility - as he goes.

Maybe he simply wanted to skim as rapidly as he could over the details of his announcement in the hope that Mr Redwood would not be able to keep up --because despite the confidence of Mr Prescott's unveiling there seemed to be nothing behind the red velvet curtains but another set of curtains. Private companies, he announced, would be "invited" to take responsibility for upgrading the infrastructure and London Transport would be allowed to "explore with Railtrack a way of linking the national rail network to the sub-surface lines".

He didn't say what would happen if private companies turned down the opportunity to pour money into a hole in the ground, or if those explorations got lost in the jungle.

Mr Redwood wasn't quite up to speed enough to point out that Mr Prescott was behaving as if the train was already in the station, while the information board revealed that it was only "expected soon". It won't be long before he catches up though, however fast Mr Prescott talks.