Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Why Michael Heseltine is like a hamster

NORMAN TEBBIT was famously described in the House of Commons as a semi-housetrained polecat. Geoffrey Howe was likened to a dead sheep. But which MP is now being seen by colleagues as a thick-lipped grey mullet?

The answer is the darling of the Tory right, Michael Portillo. But the new comparison is not a piece of political invective; it is part of an official adopt-a-creature charity scheme suggested to MPs by London Zoo.

Earlier this month the zoo sent MPs an adoption form, a list of animals and an invitation to adopt a beastie on behalf of a fellow member, either openly or anonymously.

The general public pay from pounds 20 to pounds 6,000 for the privilege, receiving a certificate of adoption, a photograph of the adopted animal, a car sticker and a plaque naming the adopter next to the animal's cage. Aiming to raise its parliamentary profile, the zoo offered MPs the privilege free, suggesting, by way of example, a lion for Mr Major, a hamster for Michael Heseltine, and a penguin for Mr Portillo.

But no one thinks MPs are strange animals more than MPs do, and the scheme has led to some surprising pairings of members with mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and fish.

Fish, indeed, for Mr Portillo, the Secretary of State for Employment, who is to adopt a thick-lipped grey mullet, courtesy of an anonymous Labour MP.

Ann Widdecombe, the forceful Employment minister, has been given a vulturine guinea-fowl; Robin Cook, the ginger-haired shadow Foreign Secretary, a red-whiskered bulbul (an African bird); and David Shaw, Conservative MP for Dover and a frequent thorn in Labour's side, an African dung beetle.

The name of the sharply spoken and sharply dressed Teresa Gorman will adorn the home of the jewel wasp; that of Ray Powell, the senior Welsh Labour backbencher, that of a fat-tailed scorpion; and Peter Mandelson, Labour's former spin doctor, will be seen inscribed beside the abode of a smooth snake.

Most adoption nominations so far have been anonymous, but Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, admits that he adopted a red spitting cobra for Dennis Skinner. "Everyone is sitting around filling in their forms. It's the main preoccupation in the House at the moment, finding animal- like qualities for MPs," he said.

Nobody, however, has owned up to pairing Lady Olga Maitland and a narrow hatchetfish; Jacques Arnold, Tory MP for Gravesham, with a Malagassy hissing cockroach; and Sir George Gardiner, the Euro-sceptic MP, with a lappet- faced vulture.

Fishy matches also include Phillip Oppenheim, Conservative MP for Amber Valley, with a bony-lipped barb; David Alton, the Catholic Liberal Democrat,with a bleeding heart tetra; and Hugh Dykes, Tory MP for Harrow East, with a shovelnose sturgeon.

London Zoo was bemused by the MPs' choices but does not intend to alter its scheme as a result.

"For all our adopters we have a plaque next to the species. We'll probably do a special one for MPs. Even if the animals are a bit strange I think we'll just do it," a spokesman said. "We'll send them all the stuff and say that 'you are the proud owner of an animal'. I hope they will take it in good heart. If they don't they haven't got a sense of humour."