Parliament: The sketch - Altogether now, let's sing along to Blair's favourite tunes

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The Independent Online
I WAS thinking about Tony Blair's Saddam problem as I sat down for Prime Minister's Questions, because, although my experience of recalcitrant and murderous Middle Eastern dictators is limited I do have young children and have learnt, like many parents, that you should never make a threat that you don't have the will and the means to carry out. My own situation, granted, is less serious in its consequences than Mr Blair's. But the general principle holds. Though I have sometimes longed for a stand-off destructive capability so that I could threaten to take out one of the five-year-old's cherished installations (Star Wars firebase as a first- strike target, I think) unless he immediately complies with parental resolutions on footwear-implementation, I know that any such action would involve unpredictable hand-to-hand fighting. Naturally I lose my nerve, make more threats and before long the five-year-old is blithely expressing the view that I am a pooh-head - much what Iraq has recently been saying, in slightly more sophisticated terms, to the United Nations weapons inspectors.

It was significant, then, to find that Mr Blair had done with making threatening noises, which, as most children swiftly recognise, are usually a deferment of action rather than a reliable guarantee that it will follow. And William Hague was in equally grave and serious mood, rising from his seat after a Prime Ministerial jab at Tory administration of public services not to rebuff the insult but to offer the full support of the Opposition at this difficult hour. All he wanted was an assurance that Saddam Hussein himself was on the list of legitimate targets and the opportunity to express solidarity with the men and women of the armed services.

The issue, it seemed, had passed beyond debate - but for the unconscripted presence of Tony Benn, rising to inveigh against the legality and morality of any proposed attack. "Why does he do everything he's told by President Clinton," he concluded, a remark that pressed a consensual moan of impatience from the House, with its suggestion that the Prime Minister should be seen as a biddable child in this affair, rather than the reluctant administrator of discipline.

It was probably the sharpest opposition Mr Blair faced all afternoon, though he was pressed hard on recent changes to the pension system, which the Tories had identified as bearing down rather grievously on the thrifty poor. The Prime Minister didn't answer, seizing the wheel and steering the House back towards the general lustrousness of the Government's pension plans as a whole. He opted for a detour a little earlier too, after a challenge from Ian Bruce over the employment rates for 18- to 24-year- olds. Mr Blair was a little rattled by the statistics he quoted, I think, given that he started by addressing himself directly to employment figures ("His facts are wrong") but segued into that old crowd pleaser "Interests Rates Have Fallen". His wheeling out of this old standard brought about a golden oldies section of the performance, with an obliging Labour backbencher rising to invite the Prime Minister to encore his recent chart-topper "Co-operation Is Better Than Confrontation".

Perhaps Millbank could get together with K-Tel to issue a compilation album of the Prime Minister's best-loved melodies. It would make the perfect gift for ambitious Labour backbenchers, who could settle down over the Christmas breakand hum along to those unforgettable hits - "No More Boom and Bust", "We'll Take No Lessons From The Gentleman Opposite", "Eighteen years and Eighteen months" - all these and more, in a collection you'll come to cherish. Karaoke version only, of course.

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