Eric Prentice, a John Laurie soundalike from Pendle, is currently winning. Poor Mr Prentice inhabits an exhausting world. Too much milk in your tea? Disgraceful! Been in the bathroom too long? It's a disgrace!
So, when his colleague, Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow), asked the Prime Minister a question about the victims of Gulf war syndrome, it was naturally a "disgrace" that "no-one in Government is prepared to accept personal responsibility!" (to resign). Mr Major told him - without too much rancour - that there would be compensation for victims, but that first "we need to establish what caused the ailments". Action would then follow.
"Give us Soames!" shouted Tony Banks, in an inaccurate Biblical reference to the crowd's demand for Barabbas to be freed. "Disgraceful!" shouted other, more conventional Labour MPs, but Mr Major looked to have weathered the storm. Especially since Tony Blair then asked about a related, but unlinked, issue - a Defence Select Committee report published that morning - on defence medical services. This painted a picture of the armed forces returning to the days of bloody-aproned sawbones conducting al fresco amputations without anaesthetic.
Theoretically this question was easier for the Prime Minister. He had not read the report, he told Mr Blair. He'd heard of it, sure, but he hadn't actually read it. He would read it, of course he would. And when he had, wild horses would not be able to prevent him from commenting.
Mr Blair persisted. If, when he did read the report, he found that things were dreadful, "which minister will take responsibility?" Mr Blair should wait, replied the PM, until the report had been read. But he was able to welcome the report's endorsement of aspects of the Government's policy. "But you said you hadn't read it!", shouted Labour. "I haven't read it!" Mr Major shouted back, rattled. "It's a disgrace!" replied Labour, happily.
The degree of the PM's rattlement became apparent later when John Prescott interrupted a high-pitched Major peroration on the danger of trades unions, by calling out "wait till Wirral tonight!" "Wait till Wirral he says!" yelled the PM, his voice rising to glass-threatening pitch. "He doesn't address the issue! He is steeped in hypocrisy!" "You're a disgrace!" someone shouted back.
The mood of chaotic despair spread from the leader to the led. In a contribution that testifies to the terrible confusion that happens when humanity meets Howardism, Michael Brown (C, Brigg and Cleethorpes) raised the question of stowaways arriving at the port of Immingham. Fleeing from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, many were suffering. He finished thus: "These people, are travelling in dreadful conditions. Although they are illegal immigrants they are arriving dead. And something needs to be done about it!"
There was a moment of silence. Then, on Labour's front bench, Frank "Beaver" Dobson began to laugh - at first surreptitiously like a naughty schoolboy, and then out loud, his furry face becoming a nocturne in red and silver. And those behind him, for whom the words "immigrants" and "dreadful conditions", usually conjure up one word only - "disgrace" - also began to giggle and some to guffaw. Yesterday - for Labour - everything was a hoot.Reuse content