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

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The Independent Online
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.