Politics: The Sketch - The PM has some good news - there's no bad news

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The Independent Online
AS TRIUMPHS go it was a very muted affair. Mr Blair rose at 3.30pm to make his statement about Kosovo with the next best thing to good news: No confirmed bad news. He did so to the most doubtful of cheers from the Labour Party, as though a kind of superstitious dread of premature celebration had hushed his supporters.

The Prime Minister, too, was in a cautious mood, already looking ahead to what sounded like a kind of Marshall Plan for the Balkans. The proposal was partly intended to reward the fidelity of frontline states, but it also contained an acknowledgement that the prevention of future conflict would be far less painful than another cure as tough as this one. He looked enervated rather than energised, as if he finally felt able to let the anxiety show.

That may have been a kind of triumph in itself, but if you really wanted evidence that the Prime Minister might be close to something he could call victory without fear of contradiction, you needed to look at the faces of his opponents in this matter.

Mr Benn and Mr Dalyell looked very gloomy indeed - two peckish birds of carrion who had just noticed that their intended victim was showing signs of renewed health. Mr Benn was so disgusted that he could not even bring himself to look at the back of the Prime Minister's head as Mr Blair answered his questions on the UN resolution. Most of these were quickly dealt with but when it came to the most fantastic of Mr Benn's alternative realities - the notion that all this unpleasantness might have been avoided had we only gone to the UN 10 weeks ago - Mr Blair briefly lost the power of speech.

"No" he said, and then stammered as he tried to surmount the glassy improbability of Mr Benn's conjecture. He started one sentence, then interrupted himself to throw a question back, his voice rising: "Do you know how many UN resolutions there were? Seventy-two UN resolutions against Milosevic. I really do ask him to reflect upon that," he concluded, but Mr Benn shook his head indignantly.

Mr Blair was a good deal more magnanimous than several of his backbench colleagues, who would clearly have preferred to shave Mr Benn's head and lead him along Whitehall in chains while an assembled mob hurled vegetables. Mr Blair responded more in sorrow than in anger, a reaction in keeping with his general caution yesterday. On a couple of occasions there was a brief attempt to hoist him shoulder high, but each time he declined the honour, reminding those present that nothing was won yet, that only when the refugees were back home could any claim to victory be made, and that even then many lives would have been lost.

It was hard not to wonder how Mrs Thatcher would have handled this moment, at the shrill combination of vindication and vindictiveness with which she would probably have greeted the confusion of her enemies, within and without. Mr Blair, who can justifiably claim credit for whatever good can be salvaged from the war, behaved with a becoming dignity.

But it wasn't only Kosovo, naturally, and it wasn't only dignified. With the European elections only a day away (yes, honestly), Mr Hague was anxious to represent the Prime Minister as a man in chains himself, cowed satrap of the continental potentates. He had some fun with recent European statements on the euro, and then Mr Blair had some fun in return. Mr Hague's new ambition to renegotiate the Treaty of Rome, he pointed out, would need agreement from all 14 member states. "Name one!" he shouted, "Name one that supports that position!". Oddly enough, during the silence that followed he looked unequivocally triumphant, yet this is a battle that has hardly even begun.