Parliament: Oh I say, what a peach of a rally at the despatch box

The Sketch

PRIME MINISTER'S Question Time included one of the longest rallies we've seen for some time, with Mr Blair and Mr Hague thwocking the ball back and forward on the issue of European tax harmonisation, to the animated oohs and aahhhs of an excited audience. There were sly drop shots and pouncing volleys, high lobs to the back of the court and flurried exchanges at the net - but as it ended with a disputed line call it isn't actually possible to say who won. Point to be replayed, I guess, but not for another two weeks, since this was Mr Blair's last session at the dispatch box before the Whitsun Recess.

Mr Hague began in good spirit, encouraged by front-page reports that the Government was going soft on its opposition to the withholding tax. But if he had hoped to wrong-foot Mr Blair on this issue he was disappointed. The Prime Minister played an aggressive body-line shot straight back into his opponent's teeth: no change in Government position, no question of agreeing to anything that would damage the Eurobond market. Mr Hague tried a cross-court passing shot; wasn't the Government just postponing an announcement until after the European elections, playing it tough in Parliament but "pathetically weak" in the Council of Ministers? Mr Blair, awkwardly placed for an elegant return, opted for his favourite safety shot - a reference to the Tory record in Europe.

"Every time! Every time I talk about the future he talks about the past," said Mr Hague, a valiant attempt to convert one of the Prime Minister's strengths into a weakness, but one which couldn't help but sound a touch plaintive. He ended by calling for the Prime Minister to publish a list of the 200 "hidden measures" of tax harmonisation currently being discussed in some federalist coven. Mr Blair denied these measures existed at all, which, rather like a US Air Force insistence that there are no alien spacecraft stored in Area 51, only confirmed the dark suspicions of the Eurosceptics. If they're denying it so vehemently they must have something to hide.

It can't be easy for Mr Blair to get his eye in, though. After all, one moment he's having to cope with genuinely forceful volleys from the Tories and the next he's facing Labour backbenchers, who serve under-arm and use soft foam balls emblazoned with Labour election slogans. Suddenly all the pep goes out of the game and the audience slumps down, grumbling with boredom as Mr Blair plays Millbank pat-a-cake for a few minutes. Then another Tory rises and the possibility of genuine point-scoring returns. A slim possibility most weeks but the Tories got through yesterday with some sharply aimed questions on class sizes, which left Mr Blair scrabbling in the tramlines. He is more than happy to use the phrase "class sizes" when talking about primary school education because he can truthfully claim they have gone down, but when he moves on to secondary school children he will only talk about the "adult-pupil ratio" - a measurement which will take in caretakers, dinner-ladies, passing drug-dealers and even, one assumes, Labour ministers and MPs doing classroom photo-opportunities.

After George Robertson's statement on Kosovo, John Maples took the opportunity to reinforce the Tories' sceptical line about war strategy, jeering at one point against the notion of the Rapid Reaction force.

This seemed unwise, since the Tories themselves looked oddly sluggish yesterday, as though they were not yet aware that things had been looking up for Nato over the past few days. Either that or, as several genuinely angry Labour backbenchers clearly suspected, they are beginning to fear that the Government might yet emerge from the war unwounded.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?