Locking horns over thorny issue

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Indy Politics
Stormy weather. So febrile is the Westminster atmosphere, that even the divine Dame Peggy Fenner - who once used to grace the benches with her imperturbable (and, I think, impenetrable) calm, as though sitting for a still-life - has begun to gesticulate and point at the Opposition during the shouty bits.

But things were calm when Tony Banks (Lab, Newham NW), a true friend to animals everywhere and Chelsea fan, asked the Treasury minister and YC heart-throb Phillip Oppenheim, about the world trade in powdered rhino horn. Mr Oppenheim - unique among ministers - chose not to speculate on how many rhinos would be likely to die if there were a minimum wage. Instead he laid into the Chinese, who dominate this illegal commerce. He thought it "paradoxical", he said, "that the most populous nation on earth seems intent on wiping out the rhino, simply because some of their menfolk are incapable of performing".

It was unfortunate that this punchy reply was still being digested when Harry Greenway (C, Ealing North) got up to ask a supplementary. Mr Greenway is, in his way, a living embodiment of political impotence. It is not that the member fails to rise; he does, and often. Nor is there a problem with achieving a climax; a noisy one is practically guaranteed. It is simply that he reminds everyone of how ridiculous the act can be when performed in a particular way. His (doubtless important) intervention was lost amid ribald laughter.

But Mr Greenway is a reminder that most MPs need no artificial stimulation to get them aroused. The game of Synthetic Indignation being played by ministers and their supporters yesterday was about the windfall tax, and its horrific impact upon pensioners, small shareholders and the almost extinct white rhino. Michael Jack, the Financial Secretary, responding to a series of tame questions from his pals, used the word "cynical" no less than six times to describe Labour's Gordon Brown. It reminded me that earlier I had heard Michael Howard suggesting that Labour was "cynical and opportunistic" - a trace of admiration clearly detectable in his voice.

On the benches opposite, however, Labour was giving as good as it got. The two-tone shadow Chief Secretary, Alistair Darling, raised his black eyebrows from underneath his white hair (a characteristic he shares with Morticia Addams and - more gruesomely- Norman Lamont) and accused Mr Jack of being more keen on "jumping into bed with the boardroom fat-cats". A nice piece of hysterical scansion, if ever I heard one.

Then the pale, slightly squat Angela Eagle, dressed all in scarlet, and looking like the eponymous terminator from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, asked Ken Clarke (in the tinkly little, acidic voice that you imagine a killer tomato might have) exactly how many times Value Added Tax had been increased or levied since 1979? It was a goolie shot, and Ken Clarke looked pained.

Labour has other ways, however, of keeping its pecker up. Morale was also being maintained by the toothsome Jane Kennedy (Lab, Liverpool Broadgreen). Ms Kennedy, a whip, has realised what many commentators have forgotten: that a large number of Labour MPs are not softy southern sophisticates, but Northern men of mature years - men who would not look out of place in a crowd scene from Last Of The Summer Wine.

Ms Kennedy weaves her spells simply by sitting next to one of the dear old chaps, smiling at them, passing a kind word - and then moving on. It works a treat. David Winnick grins, William O'Brien blushes, Peter Hardy glows. All are happy - and it's so much cheaper than rhino horn.

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