The Sketch: Sir Norman returns, but all the cheering is for Shearer

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The Independent Online
LIKE THE rest of the country, most of the House of Commons played truant yesterday to watch England hammer Tunisia in the World Cup.

As they say in the commentary box, Home Office questions was a game of two halves. Out of 659 MPs, I counted in the chamber 17 Tories, 30 Labour MPs and four Liberals droning on about maximum sentencing, youth crime and the Crime and Disorder Bill. The action, however, was elsewhere.

But where? MPs were nowhere to be seen. I stalked miles around empty corridors and bars. Finally I tracked them down to an underground cavern directly beneath the Chamber of the House of Commons. Huge cheers could be heard from within.

I had stumbled across the Ministerial Conference Room, where 30 old Labour cloth-cappers were clustered round a wide-screen TV, bellowing with the best of the yobbos.

Where normally Cabinet ministers attend, with their advisers and civil servants, to discuss policies in secret, the Labour lads had moved in.

The horny-handed end of the Labour party had taken over government for the afternoon, thrown out the policy wonks, and got in the booze and crisps for an orgy of shouting, cheering, yelping, dancing and good old-fashioned loutish behaviour.

Meanwhile, the chamber upstairs droned on, oblivious to its irrelevance. The Tories used the occasion to give us a glimpse of their future, firmly stuck in the past, by presenting their new shadow spokesman for home affairs for the first time.

I was, at the very least, expecting the new face of Tory law and order to match up to William Hague's promise of a "Fresh Future", which appears on every press-conference podium.

So just who is this new whiz-kid, charged with the task of wiping away the grief and tears caused by Michael Howard's 10 years in government?

Step forward, Sir Norman Fowler, 60 years old, with more retirements than there are Tory MPs. Sir Norman entered Parliament 28 years ago, when Mr Hague was nine years old.

He served in Mrs Thatcher's shadow Cabinet in 1975 and in her government for 10 years. After retiring "to spend more time with his family" he was asked by John Major to be the party chairman in 1992 before he returned to the bosom of his family, once more, two years later.

And now, here we go again. Sir Norman is back with another five years to go before the state will provide him with yet another retirement opportunity. In the meantime he is the coming man, chosen to set the blue-rinse Tory ladies' juices running at party conferences with his variation of the annual "hang 'em flog 'em' routine.

Yesterday's debut in his new role drew us to the reason why he is still required. Statesmanship and gravity were needed to raise the issue of the football violence in Marseilles.

But, bluntly, no one was listening to anything. Even Peter Pike (Labour, Burnley) - normally one of the most assiduous backbench MPs - having asked his question, could not resist the temptation to nip down and join his mates in the TV room shortly afterwards. Yesterday was simply not a day for politics. Sport triumphed and nobody minded.

Even Madam Speaker left after just 55 minutes in the chair and couldn't, I expect, wait to get up to her state apartments, throw off her robes, put on her comfy black shoes and curlers and get in the fish and chips to cheer with the rest of us.

I swear I heard her shouting across the Thames when England scored the second goal.

Never mind "Cool Britannia". This was a day for "Rule Britannia" and "'ere we go, 'ere we go, 'ere we go".