Too much for a lady in super-Poppins mode

Sharply dressed know-all makes Virginia an offer to refuse
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The Independent Online
Once upon a time Virginia Bottomley was not very popular. She was the girl who - as Secretary of State for Health - just couldn't say "yes". Today, in the much less prestigious post at Heritage, she gets the plaudits for all the dosh ladled out by the National Lottery.

"Is she aware how grateful..?" cooed Lady Olga Maitland about some vast hand-out or other. "The people of Scarborough are delighted..." opined the town's anonymous member. Nigel Evans, of Ribble Valley, after praising his constituency's cinema for providing "an excellent service" - presumably by showing films - spoke of the National Lottery's success in funding amateur dramatics in local village halls. Sounds exciting, Nigel. But could I stand the pace?

Denis MacShane (Labour), the sharply dressed know-all from Rotherham, tried his best to puncture the subsidised bonhomie of the government benches. In a typically MacShanian attempt to link Heritage with rail privatisation (and thus make page 11 in the Rotherham Bugle) he invited Mrs Bottomley to "join me and my family as we take the train from Sheffield to Edale, leaving our car at home".

She should decline. Picture the scene; the entire MacShane family: Dad with shiny whistle, walking stick and compass, kids with those shoes that have animal tracks on the soles. "Look at that Chaenomeles, children", suggests Denis. "Yes Papa, what early flowering for this time of year!" they chorus. Even Virginia in super-Poppins mode might find it all a bit hard.

Rural pleasures gave way to the delights of willow and leather. Not the House of Commons S&M club, but cricket.

Julian Brazier (Conervative, Canterbury) had prepared one of his humorous questions - which invariably incorporate Newbold-type poems delivered with ill-judged gusto. Brazier is tall and thin; his expression that of a good humoured, but not over-intelligent man, concerned that he may be out of his depth.

He is like a youngish Latin master at a fearsome public school, permanently anxious to show the boys that he remembers what it is like to be a boy, always dimly aware that somehow it isn't quite coming off. This time he delivered some awful lines about ladies' cricket, maids and overs, and elicited the inevitable answer about the squillions spent by the Lottery on womens' sports.

This same concern for our traditions spilled into the session of questions to the Lord Chancellor's Department. Andrew MacKinlay (Labour, Thurrock) was getting exercised on the subject of judge's wigs. Mr MacKinlay has the longest list of special interests and recreations in the Parliamentary Companion. They include studying battlefields in Belgium, collecting Labour movement "ephemera and memorabilia" and non-league soccer. In other words, he is a serious anorak.

Like many anoraks, he pays only sporadic visits to the real world. Sometimes these encounters enable him to speak with rare insight. So his description of the wigs worn in modern courts as "absurd Jacobean garb" was clearly correct. But he spoiled it when he argued that judges' wigs were "intimidating to those who are accused", making them feel "isolated".

He may be right, but if one were to draw up a guidebook of arguments unlikely to appeal to Tory backbenchers (and New Labour frontbenchers), Unfair To Defendants would be near the top. Most MPs know that those accused are guilty, otherwise the police wouldn't have wasted time arresting them.

More attractive was the contention by former barrister Alex Carlile (Liberal Democrat, Montgomery) that wigs make you go bald. But this too was doomed, for it was revealed that the Lord Chancellor had been looking into the hairpiece question. I saw Lord Mackay at President Chirac's address last week and he looked exactly like one of those Hogarth engravings - "The Rake Receives Sentence" or "Judge Jeffreys And The Black Cap". He was radiant, for he too likes collecting ephemera and memorabilia. On his head.