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21 November 2013

Who is the lurking tiger shark of the government: Michael Gove or George Osborne?

What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upw

By Alice O'keeffe

It is a crystal clear autumn day and Larry, Moe and I are outside Westminster station. Before us, the gold trimmings on Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are blinging away in the sunshine.

“And this, Larry, is where all the people who run the country work.”

“Why do they run the country?”

“Good question, my friend.”

It feels odd being back here. The last time I came to this Tube station was for a Very Important Meeting with a minister. I had my smart suit on and felt very purposeful, just like all the square-jawed wonks milling around us. Now, though none of our great leaders would dream of pointing it out, I am just a pleb. I’ve got my holey old puffa jacket on and my only purpose is to be first in the queue for the London Aquarium, where Larry, Moe and I plan to spend the morning watching real live sharks.

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Larry’s long and fervent relationship with Bob the Builder has come to an abrupt end. It turns out that Bob is “just for babies”. His new hero is Captain Barnacles, star of the sea-life-based educational cartoon The Octonauts. I find little to love about Barnacles, a curiously blank-faced teddy bear in a diving suit, but watching fish at the Aquarium certainly beats counting diggers at the building site down the road.

One day, when Larry is older, perhaps we’ll come to look around the Houses of Parliament, so we can marvel at our democracy in action. But there’s no time for that today, so we cross Westminster Bridge at a snip. Result! We are literally the first people here. A meet-and-greet girl with a pneumatic smile takes our picture and waves us inside.

The first few tanks are just the warm-up: jellyfish like luminous petticoats; furtive hermit crabs; a brace of knobbly sea slugs. Larry scoots past with his eyes on the prize. Deep in the heart of the cavernous building he finds what he is looking for: an enormous, three-storey tank filled with an eye-popping array of sea life. Above us, turtles the size of dining tables perform elegant pirouettes. Rays glide and dip like fat kites. One silver fish has a face uncannily like that of Victor Meldrew. And at the very bottom of the tank, creeping slowly, menacingly, with the terrible snaggle-toothed nonsmile of a James Bond baddy: the sand tiger shark.

Larry is breathless with excitement. “He’s like a monster, Mummy, like a thing, like a big, fat, terrible . . .” He grapples with his limited vocabulary. “Like a BEAST!”

We sit down to watch. After a few minutes, hypnotised by perpetual motion, I drift into a flight of fancy. What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upwards. Who’d be the lurking tiger shark – George Osborne? Michael Gove?

Meanwhile, the animals would run the country. They would do something about overfishing. Maybe they would ban plastic bags, and cod fish fingers, and oil exploration in the Arctic. As ideas go, I’ve certainly had worse.