The Sketch: Unblooded and unbowed, labours deputy survives a bullfight

Parliament
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The Independent Online
SHARKS ARE known to be able to scent blood through many miles of intervening water, but politicians and journalists leave them standing in this respect. The merest whiff of haemoglobin on the breeze and they begin to circle menacingly, every primordial instinct yammering at them not to miss the kill.

The House of Commons was a corrida yesterday - and there was no question that the main event was John Redwood's heavily promoted bull-fight with John Prescott. MPs had come for death in the afternoon.

So much so, indeed, that Prime Minister's Question Time was something of a warm-up act. Even Mr Hague was thinking ahead to the event that was to follow, using his first two questions to soften up the sacrificial beast, though he hadn't yet entered the ring. Did the Prime Minister support his Deputy's strategy of "persecuting the motorist" he asked, to exhilarated roars from both sides of the house.

He mocked the Government's claim to have already developed an integrated transport policy; "the only thing the Deputy Prime Minister has integrated", he said, "is a chicken masala with an afternoon nap". More cheers from the excited crowd - this was mere picador stuff but it promised more.

Mr Redwood had an integrated transport policy joke too - he defined it as "a lay-by on the M1 where he can swap Jaguars as he speeds south" - but where Mr Hague had managed to get under the skin of his opponent, Mr Redwood never really managed to penetrate Mr Prescott's hide.

The Prime Minister is still niggled by the fact that people laugh at Mr Hague's jokes - and he still hasn't learnt that the only defence against them is to come up with something funnier. When he whinges - as he did again yesterday it just makes him look po-faced and allows Tory MPs to make a "look who's narky" noise.

Mr Prescott can also be over-sensitive about gags at his expense but, fortunately for him, Mr Redwood was off-colour yesterday - still groggy from the bout of flu which supplied him with his opening metaphor for overheated, congested Britain. Mr Redwood can usually make himself heard above the roughest Parliamentary weather but such was the hubbub from the cheap seats on both sides of the house that he was often inaudible.

Mr Prescott knew he was in the clear from the moment he got up - "I don't think that speech was worth coming back for", he said, and though the line might have been pre-scripted, the relish with which it was delivered had the bite of genuine relief. Even a nasty pile up in his first scripted gag didn't put him off: "My experts tell me," he said, "that of all the trees in the world the dentist - the densest is the Redwood".

Then he put his head down and charged - tossing interventions aside with a surly flick of his horns. He was tired by the end, beginning to stumble over the longer lines, but Mr Redwood hadn't managed to slide the sword home.

No ears for him then, but Spanish flair shone through in another quarter. Mr Portillo chose yesterday to make his maiden speech as the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea and he had brought a prop with him, a Portillo brand inflatable pillow which had been sent him by an Australian friend. Mr Portillo obligingly read from its instructions - "Portillo for unrivalled comfort. Portillo for ease and convenience. A thousand and one uses. Grab Portillo in palm of right hand, insert thumb into opening."

His colleagues were so startled by this gratuitous Julian Clary impersonation that they didn't even laugh. One shuddered slightly, as though he'd just been granted an unwanted insight into Mr Portillo's erotic past. But then Mr Portillo did another impression, of fluent and informed opposition on transport. As long as he doesn't get punctured, his party will find some use for him.

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