Parliament - The Sketch: Fears of avalanche on Mount Blair prove unfounded

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PRIME MINISTER'S Questions yesterday promised to be the most interesting for weeks. Mr Blair could not have had the easiest of weekends - what with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and his brisk education in the unpredictable targeting of PR voting systems. Mr Hague, on the other hand, might have been expected to display the renewed vigour of a recently reprieved man.

The deliverance of last Thursday is so recent that he can probably still feel the rasp of hemp on his neck, a sensation which is known to concentrate the mind wonderfully. I can't have been the only correspondent, then, who was looking forward to something a little less one-sided than recent encounters. In the event, though, it was quieter than one might have predicted - both sides having taken a step back from positions that virtually guaranteed friction.

Mr Tam Dalyell began proceedings with a question about Iraq, usefully reminding all present that he is an efficient multi-task dove, capable of not fighting on two fronts at once. But the headline item, naturally, was Kosovo. Mr Hague was clearly resolved not to be depicted as an underminer of military morale - the accusation that has been hurled at various Tory sceptics over the last few weeks.

Frankly this was always something of a weak position for the Labour party: if British troops are really sitting out in Macedonia saying "I don't know, Sir. I just can't seem to get motivated since Sir Peter Tapsell said that the campaign is ill-conceived", then we might as well sue for peace now. But Mr Hague was taking no chances.

Opening with a statement of support for the Government "in their aims", he advanced with great caution to a question about whether the air campaign would actually deliver them, pausing every now and then to hammer in another piton, lest he should be swept off the rock face by a sudden avalanche of Prime Ministerial indignation. He knocked in a sub-clause which paid tribute to the professionalism of our armed forces, advanced a little higher, then added another belay point - an acknowledgement of the terrible reports of atrocity. Up a few more metres, and a quick citation of the Chief of Staff provided yet another anchor for his safety rope.

There had been a warning snow slide earlier on a lesser slope - Clare Short telling Gary Streeter that she was "shocked by the behaviour of the British Conservative Party". But conditions on Mount Blair proved more stable, even benign, the Prime Minister having apparently decided that all-party support is worth a bit of diplomacy. When Tom King complained about Number Ten briefings which questioned the loyalty of Conservatives who had doubts about the conduct of the war, Mr Blair was unequivocal. He entirely agreed with what Mr King said. Number Ten would withdraw its brutal and ill-disciplined political cleansers in return for a let-up in Tory scepticism.

What was most striking was that, far from pressing his foot on the brake pedal, Mr Hague appeared to be urging the Prime Minister to accelerate. In his very first speech about the Nato attacks Mr Hague made it clear that Conservative support had limits - they would not back the Government if it put in ground troops. Then he went quiet for a bit, after it became clear that this did not entirely match the mood of the public.

Mr Hague was listening, one presumes, and having listened he pressed Mr Blair not to leave any decision on ground troops too late. "I won't remind him of what he said about ground forces a short while ago," said Mr Blair oxymoronically. But he cannot make much capital out of Mr Hague's handbrake turn, knowing that his own may be only a short distance along the road.