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UK Politics

Stalinism abroad in garden of England

In the general election of 1992, 480,000 voters in the county of Kent returned 16 Conservative MPs, at an average of 30,070 votes per seat. The 402,000 voters who put their cross against either Labour or the Liberal Democrats returned exactly no MPs, at a mathematically interesting average.

The 16 who got in are a pretty remarkable bunch. Among their ranks march Michael Howard, the Home Secretary; his underling Ann Widdecombe (whose new uniform of black cassock and dangling crucifix makes her look like the Vicar of Dibley under demonic possession); Roger Gale, the splenetic Thanet member, whose spell as a producer on Blue Peter ("down Patch!") has somehow qualified him as an expert on broadcasting; Robert Dunn, the graceless Ernst Rohm lookalike from Dartford; Jacques "buzz-saw" Arnold; and David Shaw, the Dover soul whose pallor and all-round attractiveness suggest an extra from Night of The Living Dead who has stumbled into politics. If it weren't for Medway's lustrous septuagenerian, Dame Peggy Fenner, Julian "nice-but-dim" Brazier (Canterbury) and the conscientious Mid-Kenter, Andrew Rowe, you might think that Kent Tories simply bred 'em nasty.

Nasty they were certainly being. Bob Dunn had tabled a motion laying into Kent County Council, whose Maidstone town hall has - since 1993 - been in the hands of a Lib-Lab coalition (thus ending what David Shaw described as "a hundred years of stability" - ie Tory rule). Nine of the Tory Kents had showed up to support Dunn and add their five pen'orth to the propaganda war between Maidstone and Central Office.

I - a humble sketch writer - cannot advise the reader on the rights and wrongs of the Kent tragedy. If Mr Dunn is to be believed, the Lib-Labbers have, in four short years, laid waste an entire county, squandering the golden patrimony that they inherited. Now the council were engaged in a "Stalinist" information war, where elderly council retainers were suborned to repeat falsehoods for (wait for it) "party political advantage".

Thus was Mr Dunn's tale. But, for such a committed anti-Stalinist, he was strangely committed to the other side's tale not being heard. One by one he accepted the interventions of his fellow Tory MPs, while resolutely refusing to accept any from the three non-Kenters on the Opposition benches. Soon it was all like a one-sided volleyball match, the Tories banging the ball across an undefended net, cheering their own inevitable point, and then doing it again - their enthusiasm and hyperbole in inverse proportion to the safeness of their seats.

But then came one of the best parliamentary moments I have witnessed in a year. Labour's Dale Campbell-Savours, the MP for far-off Workington, rose to the defence of a council that, he said "could not defend itself" in the House. Stolidly, he intoned a speech full of statistics supporting Kent's case and contradicting Mr Dunn's.

One by one, the furious anti-Stalinists opposite attempted to interrupt or derail him. Specious points of order came from Messrs Arnold, Gale, Roger Moate, Rowe, Shaw and Fenner, all furious at suffering exactly the same shut-out that they had themselves earlier inflicted. Like Horatius, however, the double barrelled Cumbrian kept the bridge. Gradually the hordes fell back - and then fell silent. "They don't like it up 'em!" called out Labour's Andrew Mackinlay. No more they did.

A couple of minutes after it was all over, a figure emerged from behind the Speaker's chair and sat beside Labour's Horatius.

John Prescott had come to say "well done".