There ain't nothing like a Dame disturbed

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The Independent Online
She doesn't know it, but for some time now I have been carrying a torch for Dame Peggy Fenner. Twice a week, instead of attending to the mundane and drab business of argument about how the country is being run, I look down from my eyrie in the press gallery and watch her.

Yesterday, as always, she took her seat in the front row below the gangway attired as one about to be presented to Her Majesty shortly before a Gala performance of something or other. Sometimes (bliss!) she dresses in clinging, azure coloured silks, others her long, long dresses feature fabulous patterns (once I thought she was wearing a scene of Pharoah triumphant, taken from the temple of Amun at Karnak - but it is true that my glasses were steamed up at the time).

There she sits, small bag on lap, alternately looking ahead or examining her order paper. She does not shout or gesticulate. Instead she listens. But not, one fancies, to what is happening in the Chamber. It is as though she were in the first row of seats at her own private concert, scrutinising the programme, various pieces of music passing through her immaculately coiffured head. Only the tiniest twitch, a purse of the lips, an inclination, gives any clue as to the tempo or pitch of her internal orchestra (although usually the fare seems to be a little Handel and a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan).

Yesterday, however, was different. Dame Peggy had taken her place accoutred in a slinky patterned number, with puce panels, handbag and lipstick to match. As Jacques "Buzz-saw" Arnold asked the PM - in low whine - some ridiculous whip's question about how Britain is now the richest and happiest country in the universe, Pegs was being treated to "A Wandering Minstrel I".

There was no hint of the cacophony to come when Tony Blair asked the Prime Minister a carefully constructed question. Had the MPs for Harrow East and Hendon North managed to wring a big concession out of the Health Secretary, with regard to Edgware Hospital, by threatening to withdraw their support from the government?

They had not, Mr Major, insisted emphatically. No deals had been done. Lots of other people had lobbied the government too; churchmen, local groups, you know. And the net result was that the A&E department at Edgware had not been saved, as the MPs had wanted. So that was that. "A thing of rags and patches," hummed Dame Peggy silently.

Outside it was becoming discordant. Mr Blair pointed out that the MPs themselves had said that their threats had produced a positive response - would the PM categorically deny this? To which Mr Major repeated his earlier formulation. A yard away from Dame Peggy, Labour's Andrew Mackinlay was now shouting at the top of his voice. Suddenly aware that something was up she peered curiously at him from over her order paper - Wagner is not usually part of her repertoire.

When Blair stood up a third time all hell broke loose. The peasant levies on the Tory side realised that their man was in trouble. Behind lovely Peg, Buzz-saw moved into an intolerably high gear. The Speaker shouted at him to belt up. Then former headmaster Harry Greenway had to be warned. "What about Mackinlay?", he yelled, regressing 50 years in five seconds. Now the Dame's face indicated that Stockhausen's loudest and most experimental symphony was playing to an unappreciative audience.

Finally Sir John Gorst (one of the two MPs concerned) supported his Prime Minister - in Lenin's words, "as the rope supports the hanging man" - by revealing that the concession had only been quite big. Slumping back, Dame Peggy could hear the mournful bars of "The Last Post".