The Sketch: It's claws out as the angry polecat meets Tom Brown

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The Independent Online

Earlier this year, Vera Baird passed me by as I was talking to one of the Tories' keen young reformers and made what I can only describe as a continental noise in her throat. Kinder souls than myself explained it away, but I felt it communicated a fathomless disgust at an entire sector of modern ideological life.

After witnessing Vera in action yesterday, I'm pretty sure the kinder souls were mistaken. It was the first time I'd seen her vast, contemptuous presence lowering over the dispatch box; she leered at the opposition with a saloon bar swagger in her voice and invited them to come on if they happened to be hard enough. We'd been anaesthetised by transport questions.

Douglas Alexander did what he does so well. He had responded to one of those short, difficult questions from John Randall: "Will encouraging air travel be good or bad for the environment?" "We've always been clear," the minister began and took off into an impenetrable account of international this and multinational that in the supranational framework that means nothing will happen. But it prepared the stage for Vera "Angry Polecat" Baird in all her visceral splendour.

If this was a fight in a bar, she'd be crouched down with her stuck-out chin, roiling her mouth around like a contorted deck quoit. "Yerrghhh!" she'd be going, "Ya fwarding bhurrghafwegger!" She'd fall over a bit, to complete the picture, but drag herself up scraping the hair off her face (leaving claw marks). Simon Hughes, her opponent, was a sturdy Tom Brown's Schooldays sort of combatant. He'd help you up if he knocked you down. But if Vera found you helpless, I'm not absolutely certain she'd refrain from eating you. Not that I want to create disrespect for the political process. Vera is passionately committed to the legal aid system. What there is left of it.

And the dismantling of the criminal justice system is only to make it better. And that old judge we heard about the other day, publicly despairing of the system's ability to get defendant, witnesses and papers in the same place at the same time - he better not say anything to Vera or she'll feast on his brains. (I loved it when she said of her consultation exercise: "Mental health lawyers have no concerns at all!") The Speaker handled her with aplomb. He interrupted one raving stream of bile with the words, "It's Christmas, after all." And to a point of order from Desmond Swayne (himself a connoisseur of the full moon over Westminster) Mr Speaker said of the honourable lady: "She's come in from the courts to Parliament. She's improving but there could be more improvement." He explained he was "tutoring" junior ministers.

Merry Christmas all round.