Half-hearted Hague fails to deliver six of the best questions

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
PRIME MINISTER'S QuestionTime is like one of those grim theatrical events in which the principal actors mill around on stage before the curtain goes up. The leads must decide on a plausible expression as they wait for the pre-performance hubbub to die away and this isn't always easy. Should they be contemplative or distracted? Should they exchange pleasantries with colleagues or wait in splendid isolation? Should they catch the audience's eyes or not? For Mr Blair the ordeal doesn't last very long.

He, presumably, waits somewhere behind the Speaker's chair, being given a last-minute massage by his seconds, entering the chamber only moments before Big Ben bongs the hour, so there is a limit on how long his facial overture must hold up.

Yesterday he had settled on a cheery grin, which occasionally tipped into laughter. It was a look that expressed assurance and relish. Why, there was nowhere he'd rather be than here at the heart of things, looking forward to the mixture of Tory derision and Labour sycophancy that is his unvarying diet on Wednesday afternoons.

Mr Hague, on the other hand, looked in low morale - there was no quiet smile of anticipation as he contemplated the smartness of his dialogue, no hint of eagerness in the tilt of the head. Even his pate had lost its customary gleam. He looked as if he'd rather be anywhere else, anywhere rather than facing this compulsory dish of ineffectual protest.

All this may be wild projection on my part, of course - an interpretation coloured by the desultory, half-hearted performance that followed. Because Mr Hague was certainly not in good spirits yesterday, tackling his chosen themes with a marked lack of conviction.

There was some surprise too at his choice of topics. "Who does the Prime Minister think should be the next manager of England?" he asked first, as if he was making conversational foreplay with a new hairdresser. It was a feint naturally and Mr Blair fell for it, ending his reply by conceding that he "should leave that to the Football Association". This was exactly what Mr Hague wanted him to say but he didn't need to worry. The Leader of the Opposition could hardly be bothered to deliver the counter-punch, in which he invited Mr Blair to agree that there "is a limit to the number of things politicians should stick their noses into".

Next he moved on to the matter of genetically modified food. Mr Blair's eyes skidded wildly across the tags of his briefing book. Genetically modified food? That wasn't even anywhere near the Labour front line. It was somewhere in Alaska.

Mr Hague pressed him on why the Government had ignored advice from English Nature and Mr Blair looked judicious, talked about the best scientific advice and wrinkled his brow in puzzlement at the obsessional quirks of the Honourable Gentleman opposite.

If Mr Hague had Lord Sainsbury of Turville in his sights with this question then he had missed a trick, because a little later Caroline Spelman (C, Meriden) produced a far more promising snare. Why, she asked, were the Government proposing that a humble corner shop and a five-acre supermarket should pay exactly the same amount to fund the new Food Standards Agency?

This question had everything going for it - public sympathy for the underdog, suspicion of big business, the possibility of squeezing some shifty-sounding equivocation out of the Prime Minister.

When the session ended Mr Hague had used only five out of his six allotted questions. If he had had his wits about him he would have swallowed his pride and followed Ms Spelman's sharp initiative with the sixth.