Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Chamber abuzz with good humour (and bad jokes) as Commons salutes returning Owen Paterson

Labour MPs were falling over themselves to  welcome him back

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Oh, how we laughed. Well, inwardly anyway. Speaker John Bercow even portentously remarked that “a wonderful outbreak of good humour in the Chamber is always appreciated”.

The cause was Tory Andrew Selous asking what the Government was doing to protect bees, and his apparently hilarious announcement that a serendipitously named town in his South West Bedfordshire constituency had done “excellent work in encouraging bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of grass uncut.”

Junior minister George Eustice rose sidesplittingly to the occasion. “Yes, the initiative in Leighton BUZZARD my honourable friend describes is an excellent example. I will be delighted to visit his constituency in Leighton BUZZARD and see the project myself.” Buzz—bees. Get it?

This masterpiece of mirth may have been unleashed by happiness at an event celebrated on all sides of the Commons: the return of Owen Paterson!

Labour MPs fell over themselves to welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary to his first ministerial Question Time after the eye trouble which struck just as the floods were reaching their peak. Normally you would put that down to delight that a demon figure for groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth was once again a target. But this may have been tempered by Paterson’s gallant defence, from sick leave, of Lord Smith, the Environment Agency Chairman (and former Labour Cabinet minister) against the slurs of his stand-in Eric Pickles. “Come back, Owen Paterson: all is forgiven.” 

Well, not quite. At least on badgers. While saying “genuinely” that it was “good to see him back” shadow Farming minister Huw Irranca-Davies demanded a proper parliamentary vote before any resumption of the “failed” culls, pointing out that when the Commons resoundingly – if non-bindingly – voted against culling earlier this month, Paterson “was on a chocolate factory visit”.

Chocolate factory visits are obviously a coveted perk for ministers in the department — understandably when so much of their time is devoted to flood, plague, pestilence, deflecting complaints about soaring water bills and tackling horsemeat scandals. When the Tory Nigel Mills suggested a trip to one in his constituency, a salivating Eustice could scarcely contain himself. “I would be more than happy to come and visit a Thorntons factory. Thorntons is a fabulous chocolate manufacturer and a great success story.”

Overall, we saw an outwardly calmer Paterson on Thursday, less combative even, repeatedly claiming to be “grateful” for even the most hostile question. Except that at one point he mysteriously congratulated “our colleagues in the US Congress” for erecting a statue of Norman Borlaug, an architect of a “green revolution” in farming which “according to some estimates saved one billion lives”.

Borlaug was also, it turns out, a high priest of GM crops, which Paterson passionately supports. You can’t keep a good demon figure down.