The Sketch: Simon Carr

Whether a cock-up, a balls-up or a cover-up, something is sadly wrong If the scientists weren't studying sheep brains, whose were they, then?
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The Independent Online

The opposition said the Government was rubbish. The Government said the Opposition was rubbish. It's so rare we agree with anything in the House, what an occasion it is when we can agree with everything.

Margaret Beckett is the new minister of a new department. There are those who have found out what her acronym stands for, but the Sketch is not paid to investigate. She seems to be responsible for cows.

Or more broadly, the countryside. Or more broadly still, keeping the Government popular.

This is suddenly not as easy as it sounds. A variety of spinning incidents are combining into an anti-government momentum, the first such since the petrol wars. Jo "bury me" Moore. Lord Macdonald of Tradeston misleading his (and indeed our) peers about the massive increased spending on spin doctors. Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong's brutal campaign to shut up one lone nut with a mouth on her backbench, and stop him talking about the war.

But that's for later. For those new to this story, scientists contracted by the Government had for the past four years been examining sheep brains ("pooled brains in the form of a paste," as the minister rather disgustingly put it) for signs of BSE. The question was whether this disease had jumped the species barrier and was infecting the national flock of sheep.

After four years of intensive research, scientists found that they hadn't been examining sheep brains but the brains of Hilary Armstrong (she wasn't using them at the time)

Silly joke. It was cow brains in fact. They were bovine, not ovine brains the scientists had been examining. Complete waste of time, money and Hilary Armstrong.

But what of it? We may dispute whether it was a cock-up or a balls- up but something had gone wrong and the Government announced it had gone wrong. As Mrs Beckett pointed out (to prolonged laughter), she wanted to release the information absolutely as soon as possible.

The announcement was made in the dead of night when the last news editors had collapsed into their alcoholic torpor. The burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna was a Brazilian carnival with gay fireworks compared with the way this announcement was made. His namesake Jo Moore (are they by any chance related?) couldn't have buried it more discreetly.

New boy David Cameron asked: "Could she explain why, if she was trying to be transparent, why the word 'cow' doesn't actually appear in the press release? She talks about 'non-sheep material' [Hilary Armstrong again, perhaps]. One of the most opaque, unclear, discreditable ..." etc. Like the best points it was well made and quite untrue. The word "cattle" appears in the press release. But I'm not paid to be pedantic. Bill Wiggins asked a belter. There was no faith among farmers in these scientific procedures, he told us. If they had been examining cow brains from the early 1990s why hadn't they found BSE?

Mrs Beckett had no answer to that. None. She fell back on an old defence – it was all the Tories' fault: they commissioned the research in the first place. It's the Dome defence. Peter Ainsworth, new Agriculture shadow and sometime shadow Arts minister, didn't manage to nail that one either.