A bit of discipline does wonders for the Cabinet

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
MAY I join in the uproarious cheers of support for Mr Michael Howard's long overdue "Boot Camps", with their emphasis on personal hygiene, strict discipline and rigorous drill? It is high time, too, that a goodly dash of cold water was poured on those of his left-leaning critics with their whines that these splendid camps are in some mysterious way "untried and untested". In fact - breathe not a word - they have been tested by those very same folk who set them in motion in the first place, namely five senior figures in Mr Major's Cabinet.

Let me begin at the beginning. It was little more than a fortnight ago. I had completed my morning ablutions and was putting the finishing touches to an article for the Daily Mail entitled "Is Britain Going to the Dogs?" for which the eager-beavers on the picture desk were already scurrying around for a close-up snap of a suitably bruised and battered OAP, when the Arnold telephone rang.

"Wallace? It's Michael. Michael Howard. It's about my boot camps."

"I suppose they are a little effeminate," I replied. "But a decent length of trouser should cover them up."

"I said my Boot Camps," snapped Michael.

"Pardon me," said I. "I thought you said `my Camp Boots'."

"We're testing the Boot Camps this weekend. Just myself and a few colleagues. We've had too many cock-ups in the past. We're determined this one won't go wrong. The Prime Minister hopes you'll oversee the operation. We think you'd serve as a splendid Commandant. Do say yes."

And so it was that at 6am sharp on Wednesday morning last I found myself in full military attire conducting a kit inspection of five sleepy-eyed Cabinet Ministers.

"So what's this meant to be when it's at home then, Clarke? Eh? SPEAK UP, MAN!!!" I asked of the Chancellor.

"It's ... it's ... it's an unpolished Hush Puppy."

"It's an unpolished Hush Puppy SIR!!"

"SIR. It's an unpolished Hush Puppy SIR!"

"And what do you intend doing about it, Clarke? SPEAK UP!"

"I intend to polish it, SIR!"

"Wrong. You'll be eating it for breakfast with milk but no sugar."

"Oh, but sir ..."

"No `oh but sirs' please, Clarke, and if you don't finish it for breakfast, it'll be on your plate for lunch. I intend to teach you rabble the highest standards of personal cleanliness if it kills me. And what the bloody hell are these, Lilley?"

"Flowery pants, SIR! Peeping out over the top of my trousers, SIR!"

"Flowery pants? FLOWERY PANTS?! Now I've heard everything. What else are we wearing under there, then, Lilley? Playtex Cross-Your-Heart Brassiere and Matching Panty Girdle, eh?"

With Clarke and Lilley already in tears, and little Gummer blubbering to burst, I decided to move on to interview Drill Training, with, as the Home Secretary had put it, "an emphasis on personal responsibility". The drill - personally initiated by the Prime Minister himself - involved me standing in for the interviewer, shouting a question such as "So why are overall standards in decline, then, Minister?" or "These latest figures show a grave falling-off" to which the five would shout back in unison. "Really! What a question to ask a Minister! I really cannot be held personally responsible for that!"

They succeeded extremely well in this drill, but then they have had a lot of rehearsal. And so to the next stop: Anger Management Training. The five were obviously suffering from a fair measure of pent-up rage, or they wouldn't have been in Cabinet, but once we had unwrapped the punch-ball of Mr John Redwood they got it all out of their systems. With sweat pouring down their brows they collapsed to the floor, and I swiftly applied a bandage to Portillo, whose fists were by now scarred and bleeding.

After Assault Course and Showers, I put the five of them through basic education. "The stress is on numeracy and literacy," I stated.

"Please Sir, how do you spell that?" asked little Gummer, fighting back the tears.

"Tell him, Portillo," I sighed. Dear, oh, dear. We still have an awfully long way to go. I shall be recommending a further period of five months. By then, they may just about be ship-shape and ready to mix with decent law-abiding citizens, but frankly, these days, who can tell?