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Parliament & Politics: Plump lady's song puts end to Opposition melodies

The Sketch
YOU CAN tell a lot about the respective tasks of Tony Blair and William Hague during Prime Minister's Question Time by looking at the papers they carry with them.

Yesterday Mr Hague had just three sheets in his hand, covered in large but neat handwriting. Mr Blair, on the other hand, has a burgundy ring binder filled with a sheaf of briefing notes, all typed out in small print. This file bristles with index tags - so many, indeed, that they spread from the right-hand margin round to the top and bottom of the page. The effect is something like the stop-board of a church organ and it is on this rather unwieldy instrument the Prime Minister must improvise his counterpoint to the simple melodies of the Opposition. Mr Hague only needs to decide what the performance's main theme will be and belt it out as piercingly as he can.

Yesterday he settled on a new tune - not the PR referendum or economic meltdown (though there was a brief allusion to that popular music hall number, "A Downturn Made In Downing Street"), but Labour Party dirigisme and closed lists. He used a musical reference himself to make his point. One recent candidate for a Birmingham Euro-constituency, he mocked, had responded to complaints about his lack of local knowledge by pointing out that he had acted in the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Birmingham Rep.

Members enjoyed this very much indeed, and even Mr Blair grinned, but that may have been because Mr Hague had just given him a good idea. As he waited for the laughter to die down he was humming "The Mindwarp" in his head: "It's just a jump to the left. And then a step to the righ-igh- igh-ighi-ight." At last, he'd found an explanation of the Third Way, and, what's more, you could dance to it!

The smile disappeared pretty quickly, Mr Hague having struck lucky with one of the Prime Minister's prepared ripostes. Mr Blair had countered his scorn for the Labour Party's proposed voting system by reading out a glowing endorsement of its virtues from John Major after its use in voting for the Northern Ireland Assembly. This sort of contrapuntal exchange is usually rather dull, with Mr Blair riffling through his ring binder for the appropriate vox humana buttons.

But Mr Hague had anticipated his thoughts, because he had the very next sentence, in which Mr Major made it perfectly clear that Northern Ireland could serve as a precedent for nothing. Tory MPs roared in delighted accompaniment and Mr Blair lost his thread.

"Thank you for the suggestion," he'd said earlier, a sardonic courtesy intended to point up that this derided voting system had been borrowed from the Tories.

He wasn't feeling grateful any more: "When I want his suggestions on party management I'll drop him a note", he concluded sulkily - a little sombre passage in the prevailing levity of the afternoon.

But we were soon back in a major key, after Ian Davidson was ambushed on the way to his own punchline: "Is the PM aware of the recent action of President Clinton?" he said, and then fatally paused for breath. MPs decided that this half-sentence was quite hilarious enough in itself and gave him the biggest laugh of the afternoon. After a delay for members to recompose themselves Mr Davidson completed his joke, a slightly anti- climactic gag about shooting Paddy Ashdown into space which benefited none the less from an aftershock of hilarity.

The real climax was reserved for a solo female voice, though, Madame Speaker rising from her seat in the closing minutes to deliver a scalding aria of rebuke at John Hayes, who had been unwise enough to shout abuse from behind the Speaker's chair. The plump lady had sung and everyone knew it was over.