Widdecombe gees-up wags for some cross-party horseplay

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
"I'M WILLING to volunteer to be the front or back of the honourable lady's pantomime horse," said Tessa Jowell, unveiling an intriguing New Labour initiative for ending the tired old tit-for-tat of adversarial politics.

Given that Ann Widdecombe was to be her partner in this cross-bench collaboration, the image that formed was a slightly surreal one - one half of the beast would be a dressage pony, slightly nervous and easily startled, the other a political shire-horse, imperturbable and unstoppable. Then again Ms Jowell's remark may have been more feline than equine, a way of combining the concepts of "Ann Widdecombe" and "back end of a horse" without actually saying anything unparliamentary.

The boors on the Labour backbenches need no such encouragement. Ms Jowell's peculiar offer had not come out of the blue. It was an on-the-hoof response to Ms Widdecombe's remark that "pantomime season has come early", an unwise sally that allowed Labour members to make some boisterous and unchivalrous suggestions about who might play what. The consensus seemed to be that Ms Widdecombe would be a shoo-in for the role of one of Cinderella' sisters.

Principal boy, though, was unquestionable Alistair Darling, who had come to make a statement on pensions. I don't want to suggest by this that there is anything effeminate in Mr Darling's manner. On the contrary, he is rather sternly masculine, but there is something a touch cosmetic about his appearance, a sense that the ministerial desk may sport a large mirror surrounded by lightbulbs. I think this is largely to do with the disjunction between his sleek, sealskin hair and the pitchy blackness of his eyebrows. What's more, Mr Darling has a manner that can be reminiscent of the thigh-slapping robustness of the classic principal boy.

He was in a particularly good position yesterday, since the subject was complex and he had a 100-page Green Paper to shelter behind. Not nearly complex enough, though, for some pensions enthusiasts, who had hoped for a far more radical re-invention of pensions provision. He hadn't done that, said Mr Darling, because although it was easy to get together a "convention of pensions rocket scientists" and produce astonishing new systems, the real test was what would get most people into a low-earth orbit, just beyond the gravitational pull of a penurious old age.

This is what Parliament exists for, of course, to ask the awkward questions the rest of us can't think of, and it looked as if it acquitted itself reasonably well yesterday, with Old Labour backbenchers in particular pressing Mr Darling on the contradictions in his scheme. At least I think they were good interventions, since I, in common with quite a few MPs, understood neither the questions nor the answers.

I did grasp one element of Mr Darling's plans though - the Government is to introduce an annual pensions statement for every working person.In other words it is going to ensure that the Ghost of Retirement Future rattles its chains in our ears at least once a year.

A slip of paper will arrive and we will sit down to day-dream about what we will do with that unimaginable leisure. Then we will look at the meagre figure in the total column and realise that we will be going down to the local library to keep warm.

Alarming pensioners remains a cardinal political sin, but scaring pensioners- to-be has just become official government policy.

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