The women in the House reveal their secret agenda

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Indy Politics
There are not many inhabitants of Westminster who remind one of famous movie stars. And Elizabeth Peacock is no exception. The blonde Tory member for Batley and Spen is best known for having advocated the televised flogging of miscreants - the punishment to be meted out as part of the National Lottery programme (the idea foundered when Anthea Turner's agent demanded a cut for her).

But during the dying moments of environment question time - just as the chamber was filling up for Prime Minister's Questions - Speaker Betty (obviously in a pleasant reverie) called upon Elizabeth Taylor to ask her supplementary on open-cast mining in the Batley area. In fact she called her twice, before realising that Ms Taylor was not available, and that Ms Peacock would have to suffice.

By the time she corrected her mistake, it was too late. Most of us in the gallery - and a lot of MPs too - had begun to wonder what Liz would have asked and how. Clad in a gigantic fur, her eyes kohled, her jewellery dripping from ear and finger, her every surface manicured and coloured (a bit like a very expensive Michael Fabricant), would she have arisen and said "Thank you Madam Speaker on my behalf and on behalf of my very good friend, Michael Jackson, who wanted so much to be here with us this afternoon. Is the minister aware ..."

And what other unexpected superstars of the silver screen also lurk beneath the quotidian exteriors of those on the green benches, in Betty's imagination? Clint Howard? Errol Heseltine (dig those tights)?

It was the last laugh we had. Soon we were all caught up in one of those fractious and charmless occasions which will punctuate the period between now and the blessed relief of the election. As is customary, it began with a Tory saying that unemployment was less than zero in her constituency, but would shoot up to Great Depression levels within minutes of a Labour victory.

When Tony Blair stood up it was pretty obvious to everyone that he would seek to make capital out of the previous night's gun vote, contrasting government pusillanimity with his own iron resolve. So, just below me, Mr Major had his line well prepared, complete with quotes and cuttings he had probably practised with in front of the mirror.

But Tony Blair had - in the words of Black Adder's Baldrick - a "cunning plan". He asked a question that no one was expecting at all, concerning the failure (despite an obscure promise some two years ago) to get rid of mixed wards in hospitals. This completely threw the PM. "We seek to make progress", he floundered, before recovering himself enough to plunder the large supply of spare National Health Service statistics that he keeps in a corner of his head.

"Yaaargh," yelled the Toby Belch-like figure of George Foulkes from the back of the Labour benches at the Prime Minister. "Graaargh," bellowed the death's-head features of Tory David Shaw at Mr Blair. "Order!" shouted Speaker Betty at all of them.

But why (apart from wrong-footing the PM) had Tony picked this issue? The answer emerged only with the last question of the session when Margaret Hodge was called. Was the PM aware how insulting his answer to her leader would have been to millions of women forced to endure the dangly bits of pyjamaed chaps in mixed wards?

Aha! Women! The gender gap! All became clear. And there are still 161 shopping days till the election. No wonder Betty was dreaming of Liz.

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