Parliament: The Sketch: Blair juggles a petrol bomb, an octopus and a Ming vase

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The Independent Online
I LOOKED upon Mr Blair with some awe and curiosity yesterday. Here was a man simultaneously attempting to control a potentially contagious war in the Balkans, finesse the Byzantine politics of the European Commission and prevent a fragile peace in Northern Ireland from falling apart.

This must be rather like juggling a lighted petrol bomb, a live octopus and a Ming vase with one hand, and yet Mr Blair is not displaying any obvious signs of strain, even when faced with the notional ordeal of Prime Minister's questions. There are only two real explanations for this: either political stress reaches some upper level of saturation and can then never get any worse, or Mr Blair now looks forward to Wednesday afternoons as a spot of light relief in his otherwise gruelling schedule - the one point in the week when it is guaranteed that he will not have to answer any awkward questions.

Labour backbenchers don't just stroke the Prime Minister these days, they give him a full-body massage, first of all applying perfumed oil to his person and then rubbing against him while murmuring admiring remarks about the impressive proportions of his achievement. "It's massive," they say. "Honest. Much bigger than the last chap's."

To outsiders, this may appear a rather cold and mechanical exercise, transparently false in its simulation of what should be a lovingand tender act. How can Mr Blair not be nauseated by the naked calculation of these urgent moans of love? How can it be that the cliched words of arousal - "Does the Prime Minister agree...?" or, "Would my Right Honourable friend condemn...?" - do not begin to cloy? But no - something about this tawdry exercise seems to soothe the PM. He could, after all, end it tomorrow if it genuinely disgusted him.

The Opposition offers different pleasures - a light birching to restore the circulation and tone the skin. The chief bircher wasn't in good form yesterday, beginning with a rather tabloid suggestion that the Government should match donations for aid in Kosovo "pound for pound". What next? All givers to be entered in a lottery to win a Rover built at Longbridge?

William Hague came back later with an equally nugatory question about savings schemes - the sort of thing that would be fine for a quiet month but could hardly be described as rising to the current occasion. Every now and then, of course, the birch twigs will be applied a little heavily: "How does he reconcile bombing murderers in Kosovo with releasing murderers in Northern Ireland?" asked Eric Forth, provoking a chatter of outrage from Labour benches. "Steady on!" they yelled. "You almost left a weal with that one!"

Mr Blair also snapped a bit, but soon calmed down again to luxuriate in the painless thrashing of an Archie Norman question. Then he uttered the code he uses to indicate the session is over - "No more boom and bust." The executive had been relieved and could get back to more serious business.

If Prime Minister's questions left a nasty taste in the mouth, Clare Short took it away again with a statement on humanitarian relief for Kosovo refugees. Gary Streeter, her Tory opposite, made the foolish mistake of attempting to top her in the compassion stakes and suffered for it. On the touchy-feely stuff, nobody can match Clare.

She also showed Mr Blair just how he should have dealt with that silly business of matching donations: "My instinct is that it would slow things up and that's not what we need at the moment," she said brusquely when asked about it. It takes some nerve to boot a fluffy bunny out of the way like that, even when the bunny has obviously been put there to trip you up.

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