Parliament - The Sketch: Just William's catapult backfires on a bad day for the Veto Gang

APPROPRIATELY, IN the run-up to the festive season, the Prime Minister followed planeloads of British tourists and jetted off to Finland for the weekend. Travel agents have been offering cheap flights to Lapland for families to see Father Christmas, savour the local reindeer meat and enjoy a few hours of skiing.

Mr Blair made his own pre-Christmas visit for a couple of days, which took the form of the European Council in Helsinki, and he returned to give an account to the Commons yesterday. The general view, at the end of the summit, was that the European Council of Father Christmases had not given Mr Blair very much in the way of goodies to show off to his rival Just William gang on his return.

Mr Blair had not engineered the lifting of the beef ban by France, and the threat of a withholding tax, which could damage the City of London, still lingered. The scene should have been set for William Hague to bully Mr Blair and tell him that, just like children who are upset when their cherished belief in Father Christmas is finally exposed, so Mr Blair's insistence on believing in Europe had ended in tears.

But somehow Mr Blair succeeded in retaining his optimistic European beliefs and made a statement claiming that "key decisions of the Helsinki Summit were far-reaching".

As befits this time of the year, the Prime Minister talked more about turkey than he did about beef, saying that "candidate status" would be given to Turkey for the first time.

Mr Blair shrugged off the Tory attack that he had not put beef on the European menu and stuck to his earlier line that, though it was always preferable to settle through discussion, "failing that we would have to go to law". Margaret Thatcher's ghost hung heavy in the chamber as the Prime Minister resolutely refused to don the blond wig and declined to swing the handbag, seemingly anxious not to play the "No, no, no" game so beloved of the Tories.

Mr Hague had an off day and the worries caused to his leadership by the Steven Norris debacle seemed to preoccupy him as his attack, unusually, let Mr Blair off the hook. Mr Hague said the Prime Minister's overall strategy was a complete failure and that he had come to office pledging, "I will never be isolated".

Secretly, Mr Hague was envious that Mr Blair was isolated and dreamt of the days when Tory Prime Ministers used to glory in reporting to the Commons the extent of their isolation. Mr Hague's charge was that Mr Blair had played the Euro game by the rules and ended up isolated with nothing, whereas Baroness Thatcher's isolation always ended up with diplomatic and political goodies. Mr Blair, he said, had been a good Euro boy but the nasty German and French playground bullies had roughed him up, stolen his penknife and nicked his pencil case. Why didn't he punch them in the face and stand up to them, demanded Mr Hague, by using the veto - the only catapult the Just William gang used in the Euroland playground.

But the Prime Minister had his own catapult ready for Mr Hague when the talk turned to vetoing the withholding tax. "We've done research on what the Tories did," said Mr Blair. "In 1989, when it first cropped up, the only veto was by Luxembourg." The Just William gang went strangely quiet. Pressing home his advantage, Mr Blair then flicked ink pellets by reminding the House that when the issue last cropped up, in 1996, "the Tories voted for it".

From then on Mr Blair had an easy ride and even one plaudit from John D Taylor (Ulster Unionist, Strangford) who said the Prime Minister had done "quite well" at Helsinki.

The afternoon ended with Mr Blair still believing in Europe and he concluded by saying that he had achieved much in Europe "without handbagging anyone". But he had successfully handbagged Mr Hague, who had had a bad day.

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