Parliament The Sketch: On a momentous day for our island race, Blair turns up

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The Independent Online
WAS IT Tony Blair's presence in the House yesterday that was worthy of note or the absence of his absence?

Being congenitally naive, I had fantasised beforehand that the Prime Minister might arrive in the chamber intent on a triumph of Churchillian rhetoric. Having decided that the moment was ripe to commit the nation to monetary union, he would produce a speech to sway and seduce his larger audience, all those eavesdroppers beyond the hubbub of the parliamentary mob. The limelight of history was playing over this moment and the leading man was not going to be upstaged by his supporting actor. Well, sketchwriters are prone to such foolish daydreams.

On the evidence of his speech about the national changeover plan, Mr Blair was there because if he hadn't been, everyone would have assumed that he was keeping a section of the fence warm for the Chancellor. Yes, it was momentous - but it was so in the teeth of Mr Blair's oratory, not because of it.

The Prime Minister is now in the position of a man who has announced to his children that they will be going to Disneyland only if the weather is fine, but in the meantime he has decided that it would be sensible to book the ferry tickets, order some travel cheques, and pack the bags into the Volvo.

"Hooray, we're going, we're going!" shout the younger and more excitable members of the family at the news. "No, I haven't said that," says Mr Blair solemnly, "we will be going only if climatic conditions meet my stringent requirements". But even the very youngest child knows that after all that effort the climatic conditions will probably be deemed acceptable, even if a freak monsoon has just devastated Dieppe. The sulky teenagers who don't want to go to Disneyland at all, but would prefer to huddle in their bedroom with the curtains drawn, see what's up and begin to issue urgent whines of grievance. The brighter ones complain pointedly about cultural imperialism or moan about how expensive the admission charges are, at which point Mr Blair repeats himself: "I haven't said we're definitely going, but it would be silly not to get ready just in case we do."

William Hague had some successes in his response but nothing that quite gelled into a coherent alarm for national sovereignty. He sent up a maroon at one point with a line about Britain being a country that had "decided its own destiny for a thousand years", a brief flare of purple that excited some "aahs" of wistful admiration from the benches behind him, but his speech was too knockabout and miscellaneous to conjure a real sense of national hazard.

It isn't easy to combat something so carefully non-committal of course, and Mr Hague has his own equivocations to protect, but he turned down the opportunities he did have to play on notions of patriotic loyalty. When he had some justifiable fun with a Sun article in which the Prime Minister had declared "my love for the pound", he didn't go through the metaphorical door that opened up - the implication that Mr Blair is loose in his fidelity to the coin of the realm, not above a spot of continental adultery.

Behind him the big beasts of Conservative Europhilia were lining up to be counted - Kenneth Clarke first of all, welcoming the Prime Minister's "marked change of tone" and then Michael Heseltine, urging Mr Blair to create an all-party body actively to campaign for the euro, a comment cynically interpreted as a job application by several of his colleagues.

Their speeches didn't greatly thrill either and I suspect that a written transcript would capture little of the sense of occasion that gripped the chamber. It was, as Mr Blair had obviously decided, one of those times when you just had to be there.