Parliament: The Sketch: Opposition leader expends ammunition on single issue

THE PHRASE "within the last few hours" always gives a little frisson to proceedings in the House, not only by its promise of urgency but because it holds out the tantalising possibility that we are going to be told something we don't already know. Mr Hague used it to good effect in his first question to the Prime Minister yesterday, ending a list of attacks in Northern Ireland with the murder of Eamon Collins and so rather grimly injecting fresh blood into his call for a halt to the early release of terrorist prisoners.

I'm sure Mr Hague would gladly have done without the topical footnote but in truth every atrocity since last Wednesday has helped preserve him from accusations of redundant repetition. Because this was the second week in which Mr Hague had selected this topic as the theme of his questions and the second week in which he had devoted all his ammunition to the one issue. Which either means he believes he has found a genuine weak spot in the Government's performance or that there's absolutely nothing else he feels confident about raising. It is, I think, the former but that only amplifies the question of whether this particular weak spot should be in play at all.

For the Labour Party there is something irresponsible about Mr Hague's persistent prodding. They see him as a man trying to find out how far he can press his forefinger into a baby's fontanelle, that soft divot in the skull where the bones have not quite knitted. It's easy to do this and it looks quite dramatic but you have to be careful you don't actually kill the baby. For Labour the Good Friday Agreement is a cherished infant that will not easily survive such treatment. For the Tories, the Prime Minister's refusal to consider halting the release of terrorist prisoners is a fatal indulgence, rather than the protection of a delicate child. They are perfectly entitled to point out that the baby's head is an odd shape, they say, and that pressure must be applied to correct it. Both positions were elaborated last week but yesterday the difference of opinion was a little hotter in manner, the mutual accusations less guarded.

"I don't doubt that the Leader of the Opposition is well-intentioned on this," said Mr Blair "but I do believe he's been dragged along by others who aren't." He jabbed his finger sternly at the ill-disciplined backbench hounds he believed had tugged Mr Hague off-balance.

Mr Blair has one very good argument against the Conservative position and several rather weaker ones. Oddly, he spends more time on the latter than the former. He summed the good argument up in a balanced soundbite: "It may be an imperfect process and an imperfect peace, but it is better than no process and no peace." The weaker arguments are those that incorporate statistics about the year- on-year figures for punishment beatings (which, oddly, seem to suggest that men who have just had their kneecaps reduced to puree might take comfort from being part of a diminishing trend) or those that piously attempt to invoke the principle of bi-partisanship on Northern Ireland issues. This can't help but sound either whiney - the protest of a small boy who has taken his turn in goal and now finds the gesture is not reciprocated - or self- serving, as if every element of government policy on this crucial issue was to be permanently off-limits.

He does far better when he reminds the Opposition that it is he, and not it, who has to make such difficult decisions and how grave an error could be - a brief statement of sole parental care against which Tory rhetoric is far less effective.

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