Parliament: The Sketch: Bizarre delivery leaves the PM stumped for an answer

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The Independent Online
"ISN'T THE emerging story one of simple incompetence?" asked William Hague, turning the amplifier up three notches as he reached his percussion solo.

The Prime Minister had a "cabinet full of incompetents" he went on, and wasn't it time he did something about it? Tony Blair begged to differ but he must feel that his options for improvement are somewhat limited in any case.

These days the Labour rank and file, from whom the fresh blood must ultimately flow, are not even up to asking sycophantic questions without falling over their own feet.

The session had started badly when Nigel Beard rose to put a question so opaque in its purpose that Tory backbenchers started to shout requests for clarification while it was still unwinding. Mr Beard was rattled but pressed on.

His constituency, he said, represented the whole country in its admiration for the Prime Minister's efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland and he hoped Mr Blair would convey to those involved "the impatience and anger that would be felt in such communities" if the process failed.

At this point his question had Gerry Adams in its sights (who I don't suppose loses much sleep over the disapproval of the voters of Bexleyheath and Crayford).

But Mr Beard wasn't finished: they would be just as furious, he concluded, with those who were "too intransigent to wait 30 months" to find out whether the IRA was serious about disarming.

The Prime Minister, used to underarm bowling from his loyal backbenchers, didn't quite know what to do with a delivery that had shot straight up in the air and landed back on the bowler's head. Should he play a stroke and pretend everything was normal or should he just try to look dignified until the next ball came along?

Mr Beard set the tone for the afternoon - with a series of Labour MPs stammering and umming through their anodyne queries. Robert Laxton suffered worst, running on for so long in a question about private finance initiatives that Tories began to protest and the Speaker had to intervene on his behalf. "The House should be tolerant," she said, pointing out that it was Mr Laxton's first go at the Prime Ministerial crease. Then she barked at him to get on with it.

Mr Laxton, more unnerved by the kindness than he had been by the barracking, panicked and clutched at a passing straw: "Does he agree with me that there will be a community hospital in Derby?" he concluded. Mr Blair has been asked some patsies by Labour MPs in his time but this was so sublimely devoid of interrogative risk that it was almost philosophical. "What do we understand by the phrase `community hospital', Mr Blair might have answered, "And what conditions would have to prevail for us to truly say of something that it was `in Derby'?"

Even Mr Hague ran into trouble - making a mocking allusion to the recent criticism of Mr Blair by the chairman of the British Medical Association, but rather blunting his attack by pronouncing it MBA. Labour members celebrated so strenuously that it wouldn't have been very surprising if they had started letting off party poppers. Mr Hague realised he had no option but to back up and try again.

"The B-M-A," he said wearily, his tone that of a supply teacher who has just called out Cockburn from the register and got the pronunciation wrong.

There is hope for the fluency- impaired, though. When Archie Norman stood up he was greeted with a roar of anticipation from the Labour benches, having a long and distinguished record of question-time prat-falls. Naturally, he sailed through without a fluff. It wasn't a very interesting question, it's true - but that's not something Mr Blair wants from Labour MPs anyway.