Parliament: The Sketch: Hague and Kennedy reveal the unacceptable face of Tony Blair

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The Independent Online
PRIME MINISTER'S questions began with the spectacle of a Labour backbencher sucking up to the Prime Minister. Hardly unusual, of course, but yesterday Dan Norris had got the wrong one.

He opened the session with a selection of pieties about Northern Ireland - would Mr Blair offer congratulations here and give succour there and would he, above all, pay tribute to the man who had done so much to bring about the new assembly?

Pavlovian conditioning made Tony Blair ready himself to catch a bouquet, but it then became clear that Mr Norris wanted it delivered across the chamber, to John Major.

It is a feature of the Prime Minister's character that he has a strong aversion to being told what to do ... human enough, it's true, but there are none the less times when it can be a liability. In this instance he muttered the requisite noises about Northern Ireland but it was notable that only David Trimble got a personal namecheck - Mr Major had to settle for being just one addressee on a general memo of appreciation and, as a result, Mr Blair couldn't help sounding a little bit curmudgeonly.

William Hague exploited the weakness even further with a sensibly low- key set of questions about welfare fraud. He offered the Prime Minister some specific suggestions about ways to combat this problem - the first of which was to give benefit fraud officers the same powers as tax inspectors.

There are politicians who might plausibly have opposed this as an undesirable extension of the state's powers to intrude into the private lives of its citizens - but Mr Blair is not among them. What he should have done instead was say: "Always welcome new ideas. We'll look into it, but we're already making excellent progress." What he actually did was to ignore it completely, giving Mr Hague the perfect cue for another damaging quote from the National Audit Office.

Mr Blair became testy: "Before honourable members start shouting about this they should remember they were in power for 18 years." Presumably the logic of this is Tories aren't allowed to complain about government inactivity for another 14 and a half years - a logic that gets increasingly threadbare with every week that passes. Mr Hague equably came back with another idea for Mr Blair to brush aside - which made him look constructive and the Prime Minister needlessly querulous.

Charles Kennedy had a fair day, too - referring to John Prescott, with heavy irony, as "our mutual friend" and mocking recent U-turns over the Tube. Labour policy had gone, he said, from "rolling stock to laughing stock".

Mr Blair was provoked into one of his more peculiar statements of the afternoon - the insistence that if the public sector was involved in the London Underground "we wouldn't get the work done on time and on cost". The evidence for this was apparently the Jubilee Line, which the Prime Minister appears to believe was constructed by government gnomes, rather than the private contractors who should actually take the credit. He dismissed Mr Kennedy's suggestion that a bond issue should be reconsidered with the same peremptory brusqueness that he'd aimed at Mr Hague's notions earlier.

If either man is wondering what they have to do to get a civil answer from Mr Blair they got their answer towards the end of Question Time.

The Conservative MP Andrew Rowe stood up to ask a question about National Health Service spending priorities. "As a man who fully intends to live with his cancer rather than die of it," he said, could Mr Blair explain the discrepancy between spending on prostate cancer and breast cancer?

It was a striking moment and it struck a polite, non-partisan answer out of Mr Blair.

Short of developing a life-threatening illness, though, Mr Hague and Mr Kennedy will have to get used to Mr Blair's condescending indifference to other people's ideas.