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Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK


Improv in the House

Talk of "great acts" or ask who is on "the bill" at this time of year, and most people would imagine you were referring to the Edinburgh Festival.

Certainly not the lesser-known Westminster Festival, however much its players may feel their acts and bills are more important.

But if the new Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has his way, politicians might be doing a bit of talent spotting on the Fringe to get smart one-liners.

Mr Kennedy, long known for his quick witted appearances on radio and TV quizzes and gameshows, has been told he should adjust his approach for his new role.

But he told reporters he was "too much of a redhead to be a grey figure just yet".

[ image: Lord Healey, after  his savaging]
Lord Healey, after his savaging
Wit, he said, was not being used as a political weapon nearly enough these days. When one thinks of great lines like Dennis Healey's 1978 comment on Sir Geoffrey Howe ("Being attacked by him is like being savaged by a dead sheep"), or the late Eric Heffer's verdict on the Tories ("The Conservatives are nothing else but a lot of kippers - two-faced and gutless"), one may think Mr Kennedy has a point.

But he is not ploughing a lone furrow on the green benches.

Other acts on the bill

  • Dennis Skinner, the so-called Beast of Bolsover, is recognised as the House's most skilful heckler, helped by perfect comic timing and his regular spot near a microphone.

    Woe betide those politicians Mr Skinner chooses to heckle. Theresa Gorman, for instance, struggling over the name of Bill Morris's union, called it "the, er, G. T. W. U. M . . .'' Skinner: "Have another G&T."

    Or Paddy Ashdown, having been criticised for the closeness of his party's links with Labour, nevertheless criticising the government. Skinner to Blair: "Sack him!"

    Black Rod doing his ceremonial duties at a moment of solemnity. Skinner: "Bet he drinks Carling Black Label."

    And what did he consider suitable punishment for General Pinochet? "They should get the Official Solicitor to gently take Pinochet by the hand to Mrs Thatcher's flat and force him to live there for the next six months."

    [ image: Tony Banks amuses Princess Anne]
    Tony Banks amuses Princess Anne

  • Tony Banks, the former Sports Minister, has proved time and again that insults are a rich comic vein, even though he has run into trouble a couple of times about them.

    Not least when he said William Hague looked like a foetus. He also once said that Baronnes Thatcher had "all the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor".

    There has even been enough of the Banks' genre of humour to justify a volume of The Wit and Wisdom of Tony Banks, edited by Iain Dale.

  • Lembit Opik, known as the "human anagram", is a Lib Dem who follows his new leader's style. He marked Mr Ashdown's retirement by wryly asking about what provision the government was going to make for long-term residential care for the elderly.

  • A host of other stars There are others in the House credited with a degree of wit, including the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, the former Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, and the MP for Great Grimsby, Austin Mitchell.

    But however much these talented folk try, reports of insomnia among the organisers of the Edinburgh Fringe are not expected. The professional comics can keep their night jobs.

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