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Parliament: Swaggering performance fails to upstage leading role

The Sketch
ACTORS ARE often mocked for their tendency to over-dramatise their own profession - all that talk of bravery and risk and fearlessness, when what they have in mind is a touring production of Educating Rita. But there are occasions when courage seems the only appropriate term for the steely front they have to display. Imagine you have gone on stage on a first night, fluffed your big monologue so badly that members of your own family have walked out, and then received the worst reviews of your career. And then, on the next night, you have to do it all again, fully aware that virtually everyone will be matching your performance against those scorching words. That was pretty much the position William Hague found himself in yesterday, returning to the Palace of Varieties' headline act - Prime Minister's Question Time - for the first time since that embarrassing moment last week when the safety curtain dropped on his head. True, he could take some consolation in the box-office advance - one poll yesterday suggested the sacking of Viscount Cranborne had marginally strengthened his position with voters - but inside the House he still needed to reassert his command of those in the cheap seats.

What's more, the audience knew this was a moment of reckoning. The Opposition leader's arrival on stage is always attended with applause, but yesterday the hubbub was unusually sustained, claques of all persuasions bleating in anticipation as he rose to put his first question. "After all the bluster about harmonising Euro taxes," he began. It was a week late, perhaps, but he'd finally got back on script, and he appeared to be in confident, even swaggering mood. Unfortunately, upstaging the lead is not going to be quite as easy for some time to come. Tony Blair stepped past him with an assured ad-lib: "In the matter of bluster I recognise when I've met my match," he said, turning to grin at his Labour colleagues. Not exactly Oscar Wilde, I grant you, but delivery is nine-tenths of the law in Parliament and the Prime Minister's reply had a relish to it which is missing when he's genuinely under pressure. Other replies were less assured. "He's become the Basil Fawlty of Europe," said Mr Hague a little later. "Every time you see a German you say, `Don't mention the tax harmonisation'." This was surely the moment for Mr Blair to point out that if he was Basil then Mr Hague has been playing Manuel in recent days, spinning in baffled circles while moaning "Hi know nothink!" Instead Mr Blair settled for one of those one-size-fits-all dismissals - "I don't think he's getting very far with this", uttered in tones of sorrowing condescension.

Backbenchers had identified the Paymaster-General as a rather more promising sore point for Labour. Paddy Ashdown opened the firing with two questions about Mr Robinson's slow progress in handling a problem with pensioners' tax rebates, describing him bluntly as a "lame-duck minister". After that several Tory members pulled out their fowling pieces. Edward Garnier came closest to the target with the simplest question - "Could the Prime Minister give three good reasons why the Paymaster- General should remain in office?" Three was perhaps an unreasonably tall order, but Mr Blair proved unable to muster even one. "Holidays in Tuscany" may have crossed his mind but he sensibly declined to voice the thought.

In one of his more effective digs at Mr Hague's recent embarrassments, the Prime Minister had pointed out that when Lord Cranborne had said "back me or sack me" the Conservative leader "had succeeded in doing both". In the matter of his own ill-trained spaniel, Mr Blair is now conspicuously doing neither.