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banner Monday, 1 October, 2001, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Policy wonkers' playtime
The Salon des Penseurs hosted by eminent think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) did not sound like an old-fashioned bout of political argy bargy, but it turned out to be the nearest thing to one at Labour's conference so far.

Anyone under the impression that this fringe event was going to consist of heavy duty policy-wonking had their expectations shattered from the off when, to the theme tune of Black Beauty, the normally sober-suited IPPR director Matthew Taylor galloped on stage in a gold lame tailcoat.


In its first term New Labour has delivered marvellously on pants

Chris Smith MP
It swiftly became clear that this was not going to be an earnest debate on matters of policy, but a battle of "Hacks vs Backs" - "the forces of cynicism and despair", otherwise known as journalists, versus the "forces of light and goodness", the backbenchers".

The two "teams" were Michael Gove and Tom Baldwin of the Times and Kevin Maguire of the Guardian, marshalled against former culture secretary Chris Smith, Regent's Park & Kensington North MP Karen Buck and Tottenham MP David Lammy.

The professional skills of both sides were called on by round one, in which the audience had to guess which contender's "unlikely admission from the past" was in fact a lie.

Smith caught out

The liar turned out to be Mr Smith, whose innocent-sounding claim that he had once "come first in the Scottish Schools Orientation Competition" turned out to be completely untrue.

A cruel member of the Hacks team fingered him by saying: "Chris Smith is lying because, as with most things in his career, he only came second."

Mr Smith confessed that he had indeed only won the runner-up slot.

But his team managed to retrieve the situation in the Defend Anything New Labour-Style round, with the loyal backbenchers called on to praise the government's progress on whatever subject the audience randomly suggested.

Almost predictably, the subject chosen was "pants". Yet even with this material, the Backs team managed a valiantly on-message, seamless paean of praise to Tony Blair's handling of the topic.

"The astounding success of the economy under New Labour has seen steady growth, enabling the lowering of interest rates so essential for the health of our export industries, which have in consequence seen their overseas pants sales booming, therefore in its first term New Labour has delivered marvellously on pants."

So convincingly did the backbenchers argue this, most of the audience believed it.

Let down by Lammy

But it all went wrong again for the backbenchers when David Lammy was given Scottish football to defend - only to despairingly announce: "But I know nothing at all about Scotland!"

And then in the final quick-fire round Mr Lammy again won the boos and catcalls of the audience when he identified Jim Callaghan as the Labour leader that preceded Neil Kinnock (the correct answer is Michael Foot).

In a certain other game show Mr Lammy would undoubtedly by now have been drummed off the stage and denounced as the weakest link.

Drastic action was called for as it looked like the Hacks were about to trounce the Backs.

Suspicions that supposedly impartial referee Mr Taylor - a former head of policy for the Labour Party, and whose think tank is well known to be Blair-friendly - was in fact blatantly biased were confirmed when he unilaterally awarded the backbenchers extra points, leading to their victory.

As the thwarted Hacks saw their victory thus stolen from them, they protested: "Typical New Labour fix!"

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