Toad tables debate for the poor church mice

Faster still Mr Sproat went, words merging, tumbling out of his mouth and into the record
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The Independent Online
You or I, when tabling a debate about giving more dosh for old churches, might call it something like "the funding of old churches". But then you or I are not Sir Patrick Cormack. The knight - member for Staffordshire South, MP for 26 years and author of Heritage in Danger, Castles of Britain and English Cathedrals - called his debate "the ecclesiastical heritage".

Many MPs are vain, some have inflated senses of themselves; but few are capable of such effortless pomposity as Sir Patrick. A large man, with a biggish head, large spectacles, a wide mouth that is often set in a shallow downwards curve and a fondness for green, Sir Patrick reminds me of the large toad - Mr Jackson I think his name was - who sat in Mrs Tittlemouse's kitchen saying "tiddly, widdly, widdly". He is the only MP who is paired (satisfactorily for all concerned) with himself.

As ever, Sir Patrick spoke without the aid of notes. Who needs a map, after all, when the pathway between brain and tongue is so well-trodden? Next Wednesday, he reminded us, was Christmas Day ("Chrissymas day? Lor luv you squire if it ain't!"), when "all over England people will flock to their churches and cathedrals". And it was, he said, his view that "one was closest to the soul and spirit of a nation when in its historic buildings". Some of these historic buildings - the churches - were in jeopardy, and needed vast amounts of cash spending on them.

Shortly we would reach the millennium. "I often think that people, when they speak glibly of the millennium, forget that the millennium is the 200th anniversary of the birth of our Lord", he said. I pondered this alarming information. His mathematics suggested that the deity he worshipped was born in the year 1800, making Sir Patrick a follower of Joanna Southcott, or one of the other shaking, quivering or quaking prophets who were around at the time. I examined him more closely, and decided it was a slip.

No one though, was going to pick him up on it, because almost no one was there - apart, of course, from the alarming-looking deputy speaker, Dame Janet Fookes, in her blue and green harlequin's outfit and blood- coloured hair, and Iain Sproat, the Heritage minister, whose job it was to reply for the Government.

Mr Sproat is a good guy. He is courteous and informative in his answers to questions in the House. But he was faced with a problem. He had just 15 minutes to deliver his speech of reply to Sir Patrick - a speech that would be pored over by church leaders, vicars and congregations across the land - and he had in his hand a text (prepared for him, no doubt, by enthusiastic civil servants) that would take at least an hour to say. Unfortunately, poor Mr Sproat only realised his predicament about five minutes into his address, when all the time-consuming pleasantries had already been uttered.

The minister was in a race against time. He speeded up considerably, but still the pile of pages in front him seemed impossibly thick. Faster still he went, words merging into each other, tumbling out of his mouth and into the record. "Chiddle diddle VAT swibble bubble," he told us. And finished, to a silent round of applause. "Tiddly widdly widdly", nodded Sir Patrick, happily.