Parliament & Politics: Beef, Mr Hague? No thanks, I'll have the interest-free issue, please

The Sketch

ON A cursory glance into the crystal ball there seemed little doubt about which target Mr Hague would attack during Prime Minister's Question time yesterday. The morning's newspapers had been full of words like "climb-down", "retreat" and "cave-in", and the previous night grim- faced Labour spokesmen had sat helplessly as Mr Paxman gave them both barrels of his scorn-cannon. Beef was surely on the menu.

But more careful prognosticators will have noticed something odd about the omens, something that should have been there but was not. As the sun rose on this day of capitulation, The Sun had no froth on its face. A whole china shop of patriotic fury lay open before it, but it declined to charge.

Mr Hague did not even go that far. There was not a single word about the government's accommodation with the hated enemy, not even the faintest whiff of roasted minister or char-grilled premier. No, Mr Hague was worried instead about "small information technology companies", under threat from IR35. This was not a new front entirely, but a stretch of the "stealth tax" battle lines that had not yet seen any action. But even so there was knitting of eyebrows as Mr Hague bombarded this virgin ground. There were only two possible explanations; either Mr Hague thought there was a real chance of a break-through here (in the best-case scenario General Blair would have completely forgotten what IR35 was and be forced to withdraw in humiliating disorder), or persons unknown had pulled a smart flanking action. Had Mr Hague been givena canny briefing about a covert deal with the French that would effectively tie his hands in the house?

Whatever the reason for the beef ceasefire it made for a dull and messy session. Mr Hague tried to embarrass Mr Blair with the prospect of Labour ructions over the Welfare Reform Bill while Mr Blair repeatedly pointed out that the Tories had effectively signed up for some pounds 4 billion in extra spending. Mr Hague had a soundbite about the knowledge economy and how Mr Blair was clearly not part of it. Mr Blair had a soundbite about the difference between "serious opposition and serious opportunism". But both sides of the house had to settle for noisy barracking to generate any sense of genuine engagement. After Charles Kennedy had asked a pertinent but underpowered question about the means-testing of benefits, Tory MPs began jabbing their fingers at the Labour backbenches and shouting "Look behind you! Look behind you!" Miss Boothroyd gave vent to a rare snarl of personalised distaste: "Order, order!", she snapped, "Or I will suspend the session...I've had enough of these people here".

The only gleam of entertainment came in a question from Lembit Opik - not because of his opening joke ("it was worth a try" he said, incorrectly, into the howling silence that followed its delivery) but because he reminded us of the most comically sublime example of consensus politics yet devised. Mr Opik wanted the Prime Minister to take on board the ideas of The Middle Way Group, an organisation which argues that hunting should not be banned, but properly regulated. This would presumably require the creation of a regulatory body - Offox - which could then supervise acceptable working hours for vixens and police the provision of pit-head showers for working terriers. But perhaps it is wrong to be dismissive. After all, if blood sports like beef baiting can be brought under control, there is no knowing what might be achieved.

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