Getting the message across, again and again and again

The Sketch

THERE ARE few phrases more baleful in the House than "Can my right honourable friend confirm?", at least, that is, when they are uttered by a loyal backbench MP. If the invitation is made to "the right honourable gentleman" there is at least a faint possibility that something novel is to be confirmed. That the right honourable gentleman was seen leaving the Hot Tottie lap-dancing club last Thursday evening, perhaps, or that his assurances on tax harmonisation are as reliable as an ex-fleet Trabant. But when Gerald Kaufman asks the Prime Minister to rise in confirmation you can be pretty sure that the question is designed solely to allow Mr Blair to repeat himself.

Yesterday he took the opportunity, confirming without obvious anxiety that on the whole it was better for us to engage constructively in European debates rather than emulate the long Conservative history of destructive negativism. This was a fruitful intervention on Mr Kaufman's part since without it the Prime Minister would only have been able to get this central message across 23 times (my figures may not be absolutely precise, you understand, but they're in the right ballpark). Naturally Tory backbenchers help rack up the Prime Ministerial score-rate too, mostly because the rare opportunity to put a Parliamentary question to Mr Blair will never be surrendered simply because it has already been answered in the previous few minutes.

Mr Hague gets the first crack at the PM, of course, and employs his own repetitions to do it. Responding to the Prime Minister's statement on the Vienna summit yesterday, he had chosen Mr Blair's consistency as the theme of the day and "saying one thing to one audience in one place and another to an audience in another" as the soundbite of the day. Some of us would have been grateful for a bit more creative variation from Mr Blair, rather than less. He could usefully have said one thing to one audience in one place and something completely different to the same audience a bit later. But it was not to be, in the face of a Tory party so aroused by the whiff of European co-operation that it rose as one when the Prime Minister sat down, a Mexican wave of instinctive revulsion. Award for the most lurid backbench contribution, in a hotly contested competition, went to Sir Peter Tapsell, who sought reassurance that discussions of defence policy would not end with a "German finger on the British nuclear trigger". Where other members have a vision of foreign policy Sir Peter has a yellowing Mac cartoon - in which a crop-haired figure with a pickelhaube helmet and a string of sausages around his neck reaches out a fat Teutonic digit for the button marked "The bomb".

Mr Hague himself has still not entirely recovered the form he displayed just after the Queen's Speech, and although his performance yesterday went through the motions, shining a bright light on communique statements in the hope of casting a spooky shadow on the opposite benches ("look children, this one's a rabbit with secret plans for a federal super-state") nothing truly delighted his troops. Even his valedictory witticism gave off a cracked note. The Prime Minister, he said, should come cleanabout exactly what he meant rather than "running around Europe giving more false impressions than Rory Bremner". True, Mr Bremner still has a little bit of polishing to do on his Mandelson, but otherwise most of his imitations are enjoyably accurate, which made Mr Hague's final barb sound more like an unprovoked attack on a innocent impressionist than an effective jab at the Prime Minister. Given Mr Hague's recent troubles with his public image I'm not sure this is the right moment to make new enemies.

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