Parliament: Hague carries the day on a tide of roaring Tory jollity

The Sketch
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SHORTLY AFTER the last election, Mr Hague and Mr Blair apparently had a meeting at which they both agreed, after brief reflection, that the former had got a far more difficult job.

The story is told in the latest instalment of Michael Cockerell's television part-work on political careers, which offers a useful crash course for the ambitious parliamentarian. Previous episodes concentrated on the genuinely desirable jobs - prime minister, home secretary, foreign secretary and so on - but How to be Leader of the Opposition, which goes out this weekend, deals with a post only ever sought in the hope that it can be relinquished as soon as possible.

The episode makes clear that this shadow life has almost nothing to recommend it. Like a real shadow, it offers shape without substance; the silhouette of supremacy without any of its solid consolations. As leader of the opposition, you can depend on little but the covert opprobrium of your friends and the conspicuous pity of your enemies.

The one consolation, it is suggested, the one moment when you can hope to turn hostile wishes into deeds, is Prime Minister's Question Time. Yesterday was a good case in point, since Mr Hague turned up with an unexpectedly good election result to boost his confidence.

It had certainly worked to cheer his backbenchers, who were in a mood of roaring jollity. This kind of morale-display automatically provokes a response from the other side. But there was a synthetic quality to Labour merriment, which meant that it never quite matched the Opposition.

Mr Hague had opted for proportional representation as the first garden rake to lay in Mr Blair's path. Mr Blair obliged by making straight for it. "After the recent campaign, I would have thought he would have been keener on it than me," he said. This left Tory MPs with something of a dilemma. Did they cheer, thus unavoidably offering Mr Blair a bit of collateral reinforcement, or did they barrack, thus contradicting a point they might want to make later?

They settled for a kind of indeterminate celebration, as Mr Hague pressed on to remind the Prime Minister that Labour had boasted that it would lose seats under the new system. "And we did!" shouted Labour backbenchers in mock indignation. In victory or defeat New Labour keeps its poll promises.

Mr Hague pressed home his central point - that Mr Blair may now find his commitment to a referendum on this subject something of a bore. When might it take place, asked Mr Hague? Sooner or later, said Mr Blair - not using those words, of course, but not willing to be much more specific than that.

Then Mr Hague wondered about a referendum on the euro. Mr Blair stonewalled again, his answers generally taking the form of references to previous answers, a useful parliamentary smokescreen that offers a simulation of consistency and steadiness of purpose without saying anything specific.

The Prime Minister was not in good form, with even his more spirited ripostes falling foul of inaccuracies. When he wrongly described Bill Cash as being one of the Tory rebels who'd had the whip withdrawn, he was immediately corrected by most of the Conservative back bench - his substantive point disappearing in a froth of gleeful pedantry.

But I'm not sure that this was a triumph for Mr Hague either. He described the Prime Minister at one point as being "too scared to make his case and too arrogant to listen" - two qualities that are never going to form a stable emulsion. How can you be arrogantly frightened?

Even so, it was Mr Hague's day if it was anybody's, and they are too rare to begrudge him any enjoyment in it.