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Donald Macintyre

Owen Paterson's performance is Pure Basil Fawlty – but this is no laughing matter

Sketch: Paterson insisted this was not a food safety issue but merely one of fraud and mislabelling

The barking, staccato, manner of Owen Paterson is irresistibly reminiscent of that of Basil Fawlty. And about as confidence inspiring. Today an admittedly very het up Andrew Gwynne (Labour) asked him about the risk from the dreaded phenylbutazone – "bute" for short". "I'm appalled that the Secretary of State is not taking more seriously the potential for contamination of the human food chain with the drug bute which is not fit for human consumption," he stated. Paterson paused for a second. "Fine," he almost shouted, as he searched for an answer.

This was pure Fawlty, berated by a restaurant guest over some moulding entrée served up by the hapless Manuel. Collecting himself, Paterson insisted that this was not a food safety issue but merely one of "fraud and mislabelling."

He then pointed out that Lord Rooker no less, chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), had told him that in a real food scare 20,000 people go to hospital and 500 die. "According to Lord Rooker, he does not know of a single individual who has been affected by the import of these products."

This played to the Environment Secretary's main subtext. Really it was jolly nice of him to get involved at all, because the FSA was responsible for monitoring health risks. It was the retailers' and food producers' job to restore confidence in their products. And cross-border imports were a "European competence".

Indeed it may have been the malign role in the whole affair played by abroad – starting of course with Romania – which led to his odd and perhaps deliberate pronunciation of "frozen beef lazahnyer products".

Upbraiding another critic, he said the right word was not "contamination" but "adulteration". So that's all right, then.

At one moment in response to the series of questions put by his Labour shadow Mary Creagh he added, almost as an afterthought: "The Honourable lady talks about horses." Since the Honourable Lady – and indeed the whole country – had been talking of little else, this was baffling.

But he presumably had in mind the mind-boggling warning from Ms Creagh "that there are currently 70,000 horses unaccounted for in Northern Ireland."

In Bafta week, yesterday's award for best supporting actor went to Tory Jacob Rees Mogg who wanted emergency legislation to ban "disgusting" food from Europe.

Earlier he had been among many diehard Eurosceptics applauding David Cameron's victory over the deal to reduce the EU budget for the first time in the organisation's history, announcing that there was "rejoicing in Somerset" at the Brussels deal. What could this mean? Spontaneous cider-fuelled wassailing? Dancing round the maypole? Lighting beacons across the Mendips?

Paterson also got his fair share of Tory backbench praise for his "speed" in taking control of the horsemeat emergency. But this failed to ring quite as true.