By Giles Coren
The Times – 23 June 2000
The House of Commons Order Paper is not the most chortlesome of periodicals. Summary Agenda, Private Business, Oral Questions to the blah blah blah. The Beano it most definitely ain't.
But Question 12 yesterday revealed an unusual glimmer of humour. Julian Lewis (C, New Forest East) was slated to ask the Chancellor
"What discussions he has had with (a) the Minister for Europe, and (b) the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the timing of any move to replace the pound by the euro".
Quite funny, that. Questions usually involve a routine inquiry about meetings or discussions the minister might have had, in order to set up a supplementary question. In this case, however, Lewis was playing with the current wisdom that Gordon Brown is not speaking to Messrs Vaz or Mandelson because of disagreements over the euro.
But would we get to number 12 in the hour? There was an awful lot of guff to get through first. We had Andrew Smith, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, saying that the sale of third generation mobile phone licences would provide lots of money for old people ("Yeah, I'm on the train, yeah, I'm just paying for an old dear up north to warm up a pie ...") and an incomprehensible question about why the reduced rate of national insurance for married women is more than the unreduced rate. But Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, wanted to get to number 12, too, and drivellers were cut short ruthlessly.
Even though Dawn Primarolo, the Paymaster General, had had her little highlights done and put on a little brown coat, Betty couldn't bear to hear her pursed little voice tweeting on about the married person's tax allowance, so she shut everyone up and called for Julian Lewis. Above the rumble of excitement, Lewis intoned: "Number 12, Madam Speaker" with the pomposity peculiar to those on the right of his party.
The minister rose. There was that imposing bulk, the nest of half-parted black hair sweeping around the head. The glasses were new, though; so was the blue A-line skirt and jacket with slinky white slip.
"The policy of this Government remains ..."
he began, in a high monotone. The Tories roared with anger;
"Get up, Brown!"
they shouted. And, indeed, there he was, sitting on the front bench behind the person in the blue skirt pretending to be him. It turned out to be Melanie Johnson, Economic Secretary to the Treasury - an hilarious mistaken identity drama reminiscent of the best of early Shakespearean comedy. Not that it mattered. Johnson gave the same answer Brown would have done; that we will join the euro when economic conditions tiddly pom, pom, pom.
Though feigning anger, Lewis was clearly delighted.
"Madam Speaker, I hesitate to usurp your job, but I am not sure that was an answer to my question, which was ..."
and he repeated it, adding:
"I have even spared the Chancellor's blushes by not including the Foreign Secretary in my list."
The moment was worse than blush-worthy for the Chancellor, though. As Brown cowered on the bench, leaving Ms Johnson to deal with a blow aimed directly at him, I thought of a man who, being picked on by a thug, instinctively jumps behind his girlfriend for protection. Sad, cowardly, ungentlemanly. No wonder Brown was single for so long.
"Frit! Frit! Frit!"
cried the Tories as Brown, soon afterwards, scuttled from the chamber. Though a colloquial contraction of "frightened" (famously wielded by Margaret Thatcher in her pomp), I believe "frit" can also be translated as "big girl's blouse".