Virginia boasts of her selfless availability

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The Independent Online
The standards of the parties have been raised, and over the months ahead the country will resound to the clash of steel, the whirr of cannon- balls and the cries of civil strife. On the right (by their own accounts) is the party of Merrie England, of tradition, fun and laughter. Opposing them from the left, are the forces of Puritanism, of clean thought and of reform.

Leading for the Roundheads yesterday was Iron Jack Cunningham, Labour's heritage spokesman, and a man who gives the impression that he masters as much of his brief as he feels is necessary, while shaving. What, he asked, did those companies invited to pay pounds 500 to "meet Virginia Bottomley and the heritage team" in Bournemouth last week, get for their money?

There were titters. The sad truth is that the middle-aged men in the Chamber (OK, and the Press Gallery) think that there is something suggestive about petit dejeuner avec Ginny, which there isn't about, say, breaking one's fast in the company of the fragrant Tony Newton or the nubile John Gummer. I was reminded of the Balliol College rules, of which number six was "no women visitors overnight", while rule seven read "no women are allowed to take breakfast in college". It was widely assumed, by the excited student body, that number seven invalidated number six.

Virginia's response was enigmatic. It was simply not necessary for anyone to fork out a monkey to sit next to her, because "I'm only too easy to meet in a number of settings". "Settings" sounded wonderfully exotic; and a number came immediately, unprompted, to my mind: Virginia aboard a pleasure barge on the Euphrates, Virginia bathing in asses milk on the shores of fabled Trebizond, were the most interesting.

Labour's wayward pikeman, Tam Dalyell, was not satisfied. Could he have a serious answer to the question as to what advantage was gained by those who "paid pounds 500 for breakfast, or whatever". "Whatever"? What did he mean by "whatever"? Tempestuous sex? Elevenses? Whatever he meant, Virginia fuelled his ire by replying that she was anyway "available at virtually every tourist event that takes place". This was virtually a promise, and many of us who work in Westminster are now extremely worried about having to fight off visiting Japanese businessmen, who (jaded by the flesh-pots of Bangkok) will be demanding to know the way to Mrs Bottomley's office.

But louche sex seems to be an important part of the Conservative Party's view of heritage. This was established by Thurrock's Andrew MacKinlay (a notorious Leveller), who quizzed the Lord Chancellor's representative, Gary Streeter, about reform of the House of Lords. Was it right, he asked, that voting membership could be decided - as in the recent Lord Moynihan succession court case - by "who, how and where he slept with someone in the Far East". To which Mr Streeter replied (shaking imaginary locks from his shoulders), that he was "proud to be British and proud of our traditions". Mmmm. To imply that having it off with a string of Thai brothel-keepers is part of our heritage, indicates a commendably broad-minded - almost Cavalier - attitude.

The grizzled Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West), brought us back to sleaze and the pounds 400,000 that Asil Nadir had donated to the Conservative Party. I did a quick sum, and calculated that, for this sum, Mr Nadir (had he only been a bit more patient) could have enjoyed breakfast with Mrs B. every morning for two years, two months and eight days. In a number of settings.