House game of baiting the Beast for telling the truth

It is small wonder that the Prime Minister runs so far ahead of his party in popular estimation. With a few notable exceptions, he is not only seems nicer than most of his colleagues, but funnier too. There is a part of John Major's psyche that sips rum-punches in calm, warm lands - whereas his desperate, fractious friends live year round in a region of cold winds and barren hills, where dog eats dog.

The curs were certainly running during defence question-time. That keen- snouted whippet, Nigel Evans (Con, Ribble Valley) told the House that his part of Lancashire (which is down to make the fins, or the belly, of the Eurofighter) had not forgotten the cancellation of the TSR2 by Harold Wilson, which had "cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Preston area". So was not Labour's proposed defence review a pile of old knob? Having delivered himself of this abuse of question-time, a silly exaggeration and piece of chronic wish-fulfilment all at the same time, Mr Evans subsided with an artful imitation of genuine anger on his pinched features.

All who were involved - or listening - were exhausted by this kind of idiocy by the time we got to Prime Minister's questions. Those who believe (like Douglas Hurd) that all is basically well at Parliament, should examine a copy of yesterday's Hansard and see for themselves with what contempt the concept of ministerial accountability is treated by the ruling party.

PM's Qs, of course, has long since ceased to have any function other than being a piece of partisan theatre. Only the most unbiddable or bolshy backbenchers ask any question other than the one that the whips have written out for them. And usually these are either Labour quips aiming to expose dither, or Tory plants trying to suggest danger.

But someone in the PM's office had been doing their homework. The under- secretary with responsibility for sending out cards on the occasion of birthdays had noticed that yesterday was the 65th anniversary of the birth of the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner. Clever chaps at No 10 sat around and wrote out a little question for one of the reliable back-benchers to ask, and an amusing series of responses for the PM to come back with.

So, the Blair-Major ritual being done, Tim Devlin (Stockton S) arose to ask the PM to reflect upon the acquisition of pensioner status by the honourable member. The House roared, some sang Happy Birthday Dear Be- ast, Mr Major delivered his lines well and warmly.

But what of Dennis? He scowled furiously and refused to smile. Perhaps he knows that little is more nauseating than his adoption as tame ranting revolutionary by an utterly unfrightened House. Or maybe he is just vain enough not to want his advanced age discussed publicly. But the more he scowled, the funnier everyone thought it all was. "I hope he smiles before he's 66", Major joked, with spot-on comic timing.

Flouting convention, Speaker Betty Boothroyd called an anger-ruddy Skinner to reply. And Dennis, gurning like an attenuated Les Dawson - celebrated his 65th in the same way he probably marked his 5th - with a disconnected rant about the appalling Tories and their leader who had "come from the belly of the banking establishment", given us Black Wednesday and doubled the national debt.

Oh, how we all laughed! For though every word that Skinner said was true, we all knew there was sod-all that anybody (apart from the nice Mr Major) could do about it.

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