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Parliament Tug O’ War - Meg is mentioned in despatches

Monday, July 14, 2003

On the pull

Pimms, stillettos and muscular ministers - the Backbencher reports from the annual parliamentary tug-of-war Tuesday June 17 2003 The Guardian

Two teams of strapping males in their prime faced each other in the Victoria Tower Gardens last night. It took several agonising minutes before Westminster School saw off the City of London. Yes, there was some excellent pulling in last night's tug of war - but very little of it came from MPs.

The 16th annual parliamentary tug-of-war, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Relief, was parliament's own Ascot. Pimms was served at a reception in Westminster Abbey's surprisingly large college garden. Stilettos sank into the grass. Peers were introduced to small dogs. MPs whose inferior physiques prevented them from joining in cast mildly resentful glances at their colleagues.

There was no sign of the president of the tug-of-war committee, Lord Irvine, though he did make an appearance in the programme. "Tonight promises to be a particularly good match," the last lord chancellor predicted. "The House of Lords team lost for the first time ever in 2001. And then they lost again last year. So tonight they will be going all out to regain their reputation."

Poor Derry! Little did he suspect that one particular lord would never have the chance to regain his reputation again. Fortunately, a cheerful-looking Lord Falconer did turn up and sat in the front row of the VIP box next to a radiant Jane Asher.

Jane, everyone agreed, did a fabulous job of cheering on the broadcasters' team. "Can I just say how suitably dressed you are for a tug-of-war, Jane," Radio 2 presenter Don Maclean told her as she picked her way on to the field. The Backbencher hates to admit it, but the broadcasters were in fine condition: Jeremy Vine, Guto Harri and Ed Stourton looked particularly toned. Even John Pienaar, who collapsed last year and had to be whisked to hospital in an ambulance, appeared to have lost some weight.

So perhaps it was the absence of John Humphrys and Andrew Marr - both touted as potential tuggers - that demoralised the broadcasters. With the help of inspired cheerleading from Felicity Kendal-Rudman and an outstanding performance from the Guardian's David Hencke, the bulkier press corps were soon victorious.

The parliamentary women's teams (not a single female peer competed, much to the Backbencher's disappointment) put on a decent show. Just as at Wimbledon, the women tended to sustain each bout for longer, with every point hard-won: the Backbencher was especially impressed by Meg Munn's energy (Labour, Sheffield Heeley). But was there really any need for Maclean to describe a young female employee of Black Rod's office as a "Rodette"?

The final tug saw a portly team of peers - cheerled by Lord Desai, who was sporting a particularly unfortunate black shellsuit - pitted against a crack group of MPs, including youthful hillwalker Tom Harris (Labour, Glasgow Cathcart), marathon runner Bill Wiggin (Conservative, Leominster), shy rugby union fan Peter Duncan (Conservative, Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) and handsome ex-army man James Gray (Conservative, North Wiltshire).

Like many long-awaited events - rollercoaster rides, for instance - it was all over far too quickly. Lord Desai, who had earlier assured the Backbencher his team were sure to win, was forced to watch as the opposition panted to a premature climax. By a quarter to eight, it was all over; and non-combatant David Davis was already surrounded by his usual circle of admirers. Better luck next year, David.

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