Dennis Skinner, the veteran 79-year-old backbench Labour MP, was in trademark form as he was overheard talking about plans to publish members' expenses online. "I'm not going to be putting my expenses on the internet," he complained emphatically to friends. "I wouldn't know how. I've never sent an email and don't intend to start now."
A member of parliament since 1970, the so-called "Beast of Bolsover" is one of a dying breed of working-class MPs. Born in 1932 to a Derbyshire mining family, Skinner was the third of nine children and an exceptionally bright youngster. Passing the 11-plus at nine-and-a-half, he went to grammar school aged 10 before turning down the chance of a university education to work down the pit - first at the Parkhouse colliery near Clay Cross then at Glapwell colliery near Chesterfield.
Dennis Skinner's upbringing is the stuff of a Ken Loach novel: a childhood spent playing on the coal heaps of Derbyshire while at home his trade-unionist father Edward versed him in the politics of the class struggle. Skinner senior, a miner, was sacked during the strike of 1926 before being re-employed in the late Thirties when war was in the offing. He was sacked again in the Fifties when, as the miners' delegate, he told the manager "a few things" the workers felt about his stewardship of the pit. He was issued an ultimatum to apologise or face the sack. "Apologise?" Edward Skinner replied, "It would be like putting me head in t'oven."
Not long afterwards Dennis was elected miners' delegate in place of his father. In 1964, aged 33, he became the youngest ever president of Derbyshire National Union of Miners. Had things turned out differently it could have been Skinner, rather than Author Scargill, who led the miners' strike against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Instead, in 1969 the miners decided they wanted Skinner as Labour Party candidate for the rock solid seat of Bolsover. "I never put my name forward," Skinner says, making it clear it was them who made the decision and not him. On being elected to parliament in 1970, however, Skinner continued turning up every morning to work at the pit. "I didn't know when Parliament started to pay my wages," he was later reported as saying.
One of Dennis Skinner's defining characteristics is his abrasive manner with those on the opposite side of the House. Never one to pull punches, he has a reputation among some MPs as a showman or "a knockabout turn," as one Labour MP disparagingly put it. He has also been known to overstep the mark at times with his jibes - resulting in several expulsions from the House; in 2005 he was asked to leave the chamber after accusing George Osborne of doing cocaine.
Many MPs like to drink and socialise together in the House of Commons bar after debates. Skinner has little time for such niceties with the Tories and their "pathetic liberal" allies. He makes the irrefutable point that if a miner can't drink and work, nor should an MP. Skinner himself has an assiduous attendance record in the House of Commons. The only time he has failed to attend in all his years as an MP was when he was in hospital having triple heart bypass surgery in 2003.
Regularly referred to as "incorruptible", Skinner was accused by the Sunday Telegraph in 2009 of making false expenses claims. Recalling how he got a call from the Telegraph's office asking probing questions, he explained. "I told them I had the lowest expenses in the House and the best voting record, but they wanted to know about £3,500 for alterations to my bathroom and kitchen and £800 for a sofa bed." Dennis was cleared of any wrong doing after it emerged that alterations to his flat had been carried out on doctor's orders after his heart bypass. "I've bought my flat myself and never charged a penny of it to the taxpayers," he said. "I have worked out that I am living in London on £27 a day while David Cameron is claiming a damn sight more for his big house in Oxford."
Still a crowd puller, like Tony Benn before him Dennis Skinner is one of the few MPs people will still bother turning out to see. The problem is that like Benn he also risks becoming something of a national treasure - and being liked was never something his politics were about. Unapologetic about his treatment of Tories in the Commons, he once told a reporter to "forget it" when asked if he would ever change his abrasive ways. "There are only so many things you can do in life," he said. "And if you think I'm going to spend my waking hours thinking about some decency in some Tory or other, you can forget it."
Visiting a corner shop in a quiet suburb of Bolsover about six months ago, I asked some local workmen on their lunch break what they thought of the veteran MP. "I disagree with Skinner on virtually everything under the sun," said one of the men. "But politics is a better place with people like him involved". The shop's owner also piped in. "He's very popular in Bolsover. I've lived here for 20-odd years and he will only stop being MP for the area when he steps down or dies," he said. "There is absolutely no chance of him ever losing an election."
When he does eventually leave the House of Commons the entire chamber will be worse off without this worker's son made good - perched in his trademark tweed jacket on the front corner of the Labour benches, belligerently arguing a point when others have long given up the ghost. In an age when the integrity of MPs is repeatedly called into question, even those who loathe the politics of Dennis Skinner will admit, grudgingly of course, that he possesses the stuff in droves.
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