Maiden speeches that came top of the class

Fran Abrams reviews the new mps

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The trunks are packed; the bus is ready to leave. As Westminster's new boys and girls depart for the Christmas holidays today, what will be written on their end-of-term report cards? Those heady days back in May when they all - well, apart from the Tories, that is - posed for euphoric class photographs seem so long ago.

By tonight, the last of the May '97 intake will have made their maiden speeches (with the exceptions of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who turned up only to demand lockers while refusing to attend class; and Mohammed Sarwar, suspended from Labour's whip after being accused of breaking the rules to get in). And what did these speeches tell us about our new MPs? In most cases, not much.

The typical maiden speech began: "Little Snoddling is an historic town, having been the first place in England to install digital security cameras ... ," before a fulsome tribute was paid to the previous incumbent without mentioning his alcoholism or the fact that he only ever visited on polling day. Some MPs broke the mould, though. This term's class wag was Stephen Pound, who related the huge but vain efforts he had made to find out even one interesting thing about Ealing, North.

In June 1889, though, a giant circus elephant had collapsed and died on Castlebar Hill: "The giant pachyderm, with its last few breaths, bravely staggered forward, and is to this day to be found underneath the road - unfortunately, just over the constituency border in Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush." Charlie Chaplin and his brother Sidney lived there briefly, but they took the first opportunity to flee to Bermondsey.

Mr Pound's speech was far more warmly received than the one he made a few weeks later to the Parliamentary Labour Party, in which he described the cut in lone parents' benefits as the equivalent of a couple of packets of fags.

Another MP who went for the wag award, and only narrowly missed it, was Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire. He confessed his name caused him some problems, as he was born in Northern Ireland to Estonian parents but now represented a Welsh seat. His constituency officers had wondered briefly if he would mind standing as "Alex Carlisle" so his predecessor's posters could be re-used, before quietly adapting his name to "Lembit ap Opik", he said.

"By a remarkable co-incidence my name turns out to be an anagram of `I kil to be MP'," he confessed.

Others, though, simply refused to obey the rules. Martin Linton, former Guardian journalist and MP for Battersea, laid into the Tories so hard that one of them broke with tradition himself by interrupting to protest. The opening of the Opposition's books, Mr Linton claimed, "would reveal that the systematic sale of honours has always been a significant source of Conservative Party funds".

John McDonnell, who beat the far-right Terry Dicks in Hayes and Harlington, was even more blunt. His predecessor was "a stain on the character of this house", he said. Mr Dicks' "espousal of racism and various corrupt dealings" had brought shame on the political process, and "my constituency can now say `good riddance' to this malignant creature".

Others were more subtle, but equally dangerous. Melanie Johnson, whose forerunner in Welwyn and Hatfield, David Evans, had accused her of spawning "four bastard children" and of never having done a proper day's work (she lives with the father of her children and worked as a schools inspector) showed real flair in this department.

Mr Evans was a colourful and even, on occasion, charming character who had enjoyed being an MP. "He will miss it," Ms Johnson concluded, omitting to address the question of whether the House would return the sentiment.

Martin Bell, the independent MP for Tatton, had a similar problem with Neil Hamilton. Admitting that he had "one or two semantic difficulties" with this part of his speech, he paid tribute to the disgraced former minister's constituency work without saying how tireless or otherwise it was, and on the fact that he had "revived the spirit of democracy in Tatton".

Desmond Swayne, Conservative member for New Forest, had a little difficulty with the uniform - his bow ties caused a few comments - and also with grasping the concept of his party's new liberalism. In his maiden speech he claimed prison inmates used to have access to the full contents of the Argos catalogue until Michael Howard came along. "We should eschew currying favour with the criminal classes," he concluded.

Later, he caused outrage when he quoted the medieval St Bernard of Clairvaux while arguing against women serving in infantry regiments. "To be always with a woman and not to have intercourse with her is more difficult than to raise the dead," he recited, adding: "As one is not capable of the latter, one is certainly not capable of the former."

Class swot - in the nicest possible way - was the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, Norman Baker, who made the first maiden speech, in which he claimed to have been listening to Queen's Speeches when his contemporaries were probably watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. He went on to ask more questions in his first three months than his predecessor had done in 23 years, and made no fewer than 24 interventions in a debate on the hitherto- obscure Plant Varieties Bill, which allowed the patenting of crops.

Mr Baker also distinguished himself by infuriating the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, with his constant questions on his activities. In July, Mr Mandelson was moved to hit back by pointing out that this endless inquiring was costing the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds.

A number of new members deserve bravery awards, not least Michael Foster, Labour MP for Worcester. His rather rash promise to back a hunting ban if he won the ballot for private members' Bills came back to haunt him. Despite some disapproval from his own side, he did not flinch, though his career prospects will probably not have improved. Similar honours go to the 14 new members who stuck to their principles and voted against the Government's proposals to cut lone parents' benefit earlier this month.

Some, though, distinguished themselves mainly by not speaking in class. Fiona Jones, Labour MP for Newark, has been putting off making her debut in the chamber but hopes to catch the Speaker's eye today. She says her homework is done, though. "It's been written for two or three weeks. It's just a question of finding the time to get it in," she said. A lame excuse, possibly, but at least she didn't try claiming her dog had eaten it.

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