Parliament: The Sketch - Blair takes credit for mucking out the Augean stables

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The Independent Online
AT THE beginning of the week, the Committee of Independent Experts had diverted a stream through the dung-spattered stables of the European Commission - a cleansing torrent which swept both the sleazy and the spotless before it and left behind a damp and slightly astonishing vacancy.

Yesterday the leaders of both parties turned up in the House of Commons to argue about the best ways of finishing the job and of preventing the manure from accumulating all over again. In theory, at least, the stimulating events of the past 24 hours were up for grabs by two implacably opposed groups - the pro-stable faction and the anti-stableites - but only one could finally secure this important strategic asset. The fight for possession was clearly going to start at once. Mr Blair's position could best be summed up as "more vigorous stable hands now"; Mr Hague's as "time for fewer horses".

Mr Blair began his statement by claiming that the broom which had initiated this scouring flood actually had the Labour Party's name penned on to its handle - the motion to establish the committee of experts having come from the Labour group of the European Parliament. Tory MPs jeered loudly at this self-serving historical footnote and, in truth, it did provide an uncharacteristically defensive beginning to a speech that was otherwise brisk and commanding. The tone was not that of someone attempting to recover from a nasty setback but of a man capitalising on an unexpected stroke of fortune.

For some time Britain had been calling for better waste management, only to be told by some European colleagues that complete hygiene was impracticable and by others that a bit of manure was good for the livestock. Now those arguments had been swept away and along with them, perhaps, the objections of those who did not want to enter the stable. Handled in the right way, Mr Blair argued, this could be a triumph for Northern farm management.

Matters were a little more difficult for Mr Hague, who at one point had the audacity to demand that the Government act decisively "to restore public confidence in European institutions".

"Public confidence in European institutions" is very last thing that Mr Hague actually wants. In truth, he and other Eurosceptics had woken to gloomy news yesterday; if you want to continue insulting a man on account of his unpleasant stink it is naturally a bit of a blow to find that he has just taken his first bath for 20 years and is currentlybrowsing the anti-perspirant counter at Boots.

The only option open to Mr Hague was to argue that the problem was physiological and not superficial - that mere cosmetic changes of personnel would not prevent this noisome pollution from arising again, only a diminution of the scale of the European Commission's activities.

Mr Blair came back hard and personal, reading out endorsements of Jacques Santer's qualities from John Major and Francis Maude and then noting, pointedly, that the Conservative Party had "a habit of appointing compromise candidates who seem like a good idea at the time".

He also asked, like a man who cannot believe his luck, whether Mr Hague really had just committed the Conservative Party to a unilateral withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy.

Mr Hague nodded, having no alternative, but he didn't nod very vigorously and he didn't look very exhilarated as he did it. Whereas Mr Blair could plausibly claim to be surfing on this tidal wave, using its impressive momentum to get where he wanted to go in the first place, Mr Hague appeared to be tumbling along in its wake, trying desperately to keep his head above water as he went.