Parliament: The Sketch: House enjoys rare breather from war

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The Independent Online
ALUN MICHAEL, taking what he must fervently hope were his last questions as Secretary of State for Wales, protested at one point about the "noise from the rabble opposite".

This was a little partisan of him, since the general rhubarbing from behind him was just as loud as that from the benches opposite. This wasn't a reflection on Mr Michael's ability to secure his listeners' attention, incidentally, though he is about as gripping as a high-mileage Post-It note. It's just it is always like this in the run up to Prime Minister's questions, the surf of anticipation washing over whatever business has to be completed before the curtain goes up.

The main event itself was a slightly odd affair yesterday. Here we are, six weeks into a major European war, and the Prime Minister wasn't even asked about it. Not a murmur, until, with only five minutes left, Tony Blair used one of those bankbench blank cheques ("Would the Prime Minister agree with me that it would be a lot better world if we were all nicer to each other?") to scrawl a hasty reiteration of allied will to prevail, one of those rhetorical flourishes that are becoming as automatic and meaningless as a celebrity's autograph.

I wondered briefly whether this signified some watershed in attitudes to the conflict - whether it had shifted over the weekend from solemn duty to embarrassing liability. But it is more likely to be one of those temporary troughs in energy that afflicts all marathon runners. William Hague is tired of saying he supports the war but would like more clarity; Labour backbenchers' flag-waving arms are becoming fatigued, and even Mr Blair is fed up with saying we're making headway, when every day the shoreline seems a little further.

They will all get their second wind but in the interim there was routine politics.

It's also true that, for the first time in weeks, Mr Hague had something else to talk about, without sounding irrelevant. This week's revelations about the Government's submission on junior doctors' working hours provided him with an unanswerable question for Mr Blair, a little thorn to press into his flesh. Mr Blair squirmed and twisted, talked about his intentions for the future and his record in the past - anything, indeed, but the accuracy of that embarrassing document. Unfortunately statistics don't work very well in such circumstances - it is as if a man stopped for speeding replied: "But officer, if you'll look at the facts you'll see my average speed over the last five months has been only 26.8 miles per hour, and I can assure you that in future I have no intention of going above 28."

"That's all very well sir but I have you on video here doing 72 in a 30 miles-per-hour zone. Could you explain that?" At which point the motorist becomes chippy. "Honestly officer, you're being awfully dense. Let me say it slowly so even you can understand."

Clearly it wouldn't work with a traffic officer but Mr Hague's powers are limited; all he can do is pull over Mr Blair to the hard shoulder and annoy him for a while. Even so he did it pretty effectively yesterday and he also delivered his best joke for months, listing several Labour councillors arrested or imprisoned for corruption before concluding they were "the only people left in the Labour Party with genuine convictions".

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