Swineherd and wench do battle over Europe

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Two more sincere champions could not be found for a more important debate. The passionate Europhobe, Teresa Gorman (Con, Billericay) had tabled a ten-minute rule Bill for a referendum to be held on our continuing membership of the EU. Denis MacShane (Lab, Rotherham), a long-standing advocate of closer ties with Europe, sought to oppose the motion. The result was hilarious.

Teresa opened so full of feeling on the subject of being ruled by foreigners, that her words couldn't emerge at the rate that her emotions demanded. They began to build up behind her teeth, weighing down on her tongue and blocking her throat. Only with great difficulty did sentences emerge naturally or coherently.

But even when coherent these phrases were odd, suggesting that Ms Gorman exists in a parallel dimension. When she met ordinary folk "in pubs, clubs and supermarkets" (I am looking forward to the MP who admits to meeting constituents in "bathrooms, brothels and betting-shops") they did not complain about the health service ("they think it's splendid), or schools ("they're excellent), but about Europe. "The one question they all ask," she informed the House, "is when are you going to do something about Europe?" Until then I had believed Billericay was in Essex, but now know that it is somewhere between the Crab Nebula and the Klingon Empire.

Her local butcher couldn't use his old chopping-board because of the Eurocrats, the fish and chip shop had a sign saying "hands off British fish" and one member of the public had repudiated the euro, on the basis that he "didn't want a pocket full of bottle-tops". We all remember, she said, what happened with decimalisation (hear, hear, yelled Congleton's Anne Winterton). With this clinching argument made, Ms Gorman sat down.

Time for a rare moment of parliamentary glory for Denis MacShane. I like Denis; he is clever and genial. And he is also desperate. His almost crippling desire to be in the big league shouts from his sharp suits and shrieks from the crisply folded hankie in his breast pocket. "Please, please, please, make me a shadow spokesthing!" it yells. And there is no answer.

It was Denis's awareness of his opponent's tenuous hold on things terrestrial, that led him into terrible error - he decided to ridicule her. "The honourable lady is an adornment to the House," he scoffed, "we all love her!" Up till now (he went on) the Europhobes had had it all their own way. But, he warned, "the Iron Maiden of Truth will clamp around the farrago of half-truths and misleading phrases". I can only imagine that the erudite MacShane was quoting from an idiomatic Portuguese poem.

Worse followed. Ms Gorman was, he said, "a chirruping chimpanzee" behind whom stood "an organ-grinder with a deeper purpose". By now the press gallery (which is full of nature-lovers who know that chirrupy things are small and fly - and that chimps are big and do not take to the air voluntarily) was falling about with mirth. The Labour benches, on the other hand, were stiff with mortification.

When the speeches were over, both sides realised that a tournament had been held - but that somehow, instead of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe wielding longsword for Saxon England and Brian de Bois Guilbert brandishing mace- and-chain for Norman chivalry, Wart the swineherd and Etta the bad-tempered serving wench from the great hall had put on the armour and entered the lists. They were not amused.