Parliament: A big grin from the PM as he delivers his catchphrase

The Sketch
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THE PHRASE "boom and bust" now has the same status in Tony Blair's question-time sessions as the portly outline of Alfred Hitchcock did in that director's films. Aficionados know for certain that it will turn up at some point - indeed, that without it, a vital token of authenticity will be missing.

The little ritual became something of a trial for Hitchcock himself, who placed his cameo appearances closer and closer to the beginning of his films as his career progressed - anxious to get the trivial distraction out of the way so that the audience would settle down and start paying attention. For Mr Blair the procedure is quite the opposite - he values his trademark's capacity to induce a temporary amnesia in the audience and likes to toy with their mounting sense of anticipation.

He can be quite sly about this - last week, for instance, he used "boom and bust" in his very first sentence, as though he'd decided not to tease them at all, but then he surprised fans of the alliterative double act by bringing them on for an encore in his final sentence.

Yesterday he held out for quite some time - though this wasn't entirely a matter of choice. William Hague, so lacklustre last week, had been invigorated by a tonic - the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on the Sandline affair, a spicy tincture of evidentiary hearings which has got the blood singing in the Opposition leader's veins. Mr Blair shook his head sadly as Mr Hague detailed the gravity of the charges against civil servant and minister. Obviously no prospect of getting "boom and bust" in here - it would be like Hitchcock trying to insinuate himself into a passing line of schoolgirls, by dressing in a pinafore frock and pigtails.

Mr Hague had a following wind as far as the Sandline report was concerned, but he ran up all his sails and used every breath of it, bearing down on the Prime Minister in a way which seemed to rally the mutinous swabs on the lower decks.

Mr Blair, forced to tack frantically upwind, was much less impressive, betraying the fact that his people had read the document rather less carefully than Mr Hague's; the Prime Minister's insistence that it included nothing that hadn't already been in the Legg inquiry had the Opposition leader on his feet at once, pointing out that the report specifically criticised the fact that Legg had "been misinformed".

But then Mr Hague raised the issue of election tax promises, inviting Mr Blair to tell the House "how much taxes have risen since he took office?" At first Mr Blair blustered about Labour tax cuts, provoking Tory backbenchers to yelp like leashed hounds that have scented a fox (the vehemence with which they shout "Answer! Answer!" acts as a pretty accurate register of the sharpness of the question being avoided). "I hope he hasn't done his own self-assessment, or he's going to be in trouble", mocked Mr Hague, and the pack howled even louder.

Now was Mr Blair's moment. "We've rejected the politics of boom and bust", he said, unable to keep a broad grin off his face as the House roared with long delayed gratification. The Liberal Democrats seemed particularly delighted, one even punching the air with both fists, perhaps having made a successful spread bet on the particular minute at which the Prime Minister's signature slogan would finally make its entrance.

As Mr Blair sat down he was still chuckling, probably gleefully amazed that it should be so easy. He had flagrantly dodged two sharp questions from Paddy Ashdown, casually dismissed a humiliating report from an all party-committee and side-stepped several bullish charges from the Opposition leader and yet the mood (at least on the opposition benches) was one of amiable hilarity. No more boom and bust? Lots more, I would guess.