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
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance & IT Assistant

£20200 - £24800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Senior PHP Developer - Zend Framework

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This number one supplier of Coo...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Forecast Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Forecast Analyst is required to join a...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea