PM soars to highest moral level available

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
"I KNOW the President well," said the Prime Minister yesterday, when asked to deny recent press reports of splits between the allies over Nato strategy in Kosovo. "He will always do the right thing by America and the world."

You're not the first girl to believe that, I thought, and I couldn't help wondering whether Mr Blair has been as far-sighted as Monica Lewinsky, securing some useful DNA corroboration in case the President's ardour should cool.

Mr Hague, who put the question to him, clearly fears that it won't be long before Mr Clinton's aides begin to suggest that he is being stalked by the British Prime Minister - calling the Oval Office day and night as he pleads with the President to go all the way. Mr Blair craves full insertion to cement their relationship; Mr Clinton, on the other hand, prefers to stick to the military equivalent of foreplay.

But does the Prime Minister genuinely believe in Mr Clinton's honourable intentions, or is the alternative too appalling to admit? It isn't inconceivable that he might have been persuaded by the President's famous charm - after all, Monica Lewinsky believed for a time that he would marry her after his term of office, which was only marginally more unlikely than a sudden call from the White House giving the go-ahead for an opposed invasion.

But there is an edge of "no alternative" to the Prime Minister's statements, too, a sense that rhetorically he has nowhere else to go. His strategy in the Commons is rather similar to that adopted in the air campaign against Serbia. When bombing didn't appear to be proving effective Nato simply intensified it; when Mr Blair's doubters don't listen to him he simply steps up the tonnage of certainty to be dropped on target, taking care to operate from the highest possible moral altitude that is attainable.

"There is no doubt at all that Milosevic is weakening," he insisted yesterday, in answer to Mr Hague's circumspect exploitation of Government difficulties. No doubt at all? In that case why does he have to keep on saying it?

Mr Blair did not have a particularly trying session, though, seeing off an attempt by Mr Hague to embarrass him over Europe, as well as an accusation from Virginia Bottomley that he was treating the Cabinet with the same heartless mental cruelty as the House of Commons. He also offered Labour backbenchers a cheering bit of slapstick in an answer to David Amess (MP for Basildon until he skipped out the emergency exit for a safer seat). This wasn't a huge achievement, admittedly, since Mr Amess is a hapless collaborator in his own humiliations - the sort of man who would try and use a lighted match to see how much petrol he had left in his tank.

"Question 11, Madame Speaker," he boomed yesterday, in tones of fearless inquisition. "I have no plans to visit Southend," replied Mr Blair, harvesting his first laugh from the sudden descent into bathos. Then he took a second crop: "I rather think the Honourable Gentleman didn't either until he saw the writing on the wall."

You might have thought that peace had been declared from the cheer that went up - but for the loud chicken imitations which always greet Mr Amess's interventions.

It isn't all frivolity in the Commons, though. When the carnival of Prime Minister's Questions is over the House can get down to the issues that really matter to ordinary voters. Shamefully, very few MPs stayed for Dr Nick Palmer's Ten-Minute-Rule Bill yesterday, which proposed that the Secretary of State should "make regulations on the fitting, maintenance and use of bells on pedal cycles".

Dr Palmer's motives are unimpeachable - he was apparently inspired by an unhappy collision between a cyclist and a constituent's seeing-eye dog - but one wonders about his remedy. Giving the blind an audible warning is all very well, but what if the dog jumps the wrong way?