The Sketch: Blair runs his mouth ragged over Brussels and cat tucks

Parliament
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The Independent Online
MR BLAIR was having trouble with his consonants yesterday. His remarks during Prime Minister's Questions were dotted with an unusual number of verbal trip-ups.

First of all, he assured the House that the last budget would, contrary to Conservative claims, lead to a "cats tuck". Some Tories murmured uneasily at this - should British cats really be tucked, and why hadn't Gordon Brown explained this unusual veterinary policy in his Budget speech?

Then Mr Blair assured David Winnick, supplier of moral indignation to the front bench, that "no stone would be left unturned in the hint" for the murderers of Rosemary Weston. Another murmur from assembled MPs - who naturally felt that the RUC should be doing more than unleashing its considerable powers of insinuation.

Later still, the Prime Minister reassured Ken Purchase that more people were now entering "the Labour party". He actually meant "the labour market" but, this last wishful thought apart, all these stumbles were less Freudian slips than simple evidence that the Prime Minister had been running his mouth ragged over the last few days, sweaty telephone crumpling his earlobe as he attempted to parlay the Brussels earthquake into the opportunity for a new model city.

Mr Hague, I think, would be grateful if it were only his lips that disobeyed him. Returning to the issue of Europe, he attempted to apply "kitchen table Conservatism" rules to the debate: "This is an opportunity to talk about the future and not the past" he said, almost pleadingly, underlining his recent insistence that his party should move on from past errors.

This is easier said than done, of course, since the group most likely to bring up the Conservatives' past record is that army of tormentors facing him across the dispatch box, and while Mr Hague's authority over his own party is a gauzy thing at the best of times, it is sheet steel compared to his discipline over the Labour party.

He is also at a disadvantage when it comes to his injunction to set aside knee-jerk partisanship and be constructive about the more acceptable elements of Labour policy. If he wants to offer the statesmanlike gift of cross- party support, he's only got Mr Blair to hand it to and hostilities must cease temporarily to allow the exchange to take place. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, can continue firing on Mr Hague while hurling olive branches over his head at the distinguished Europhiles on the Tory back benches - as he did yesterday during another brisk exchange on the European Commission.

Mr Hague did rally now and then, scoring a hit on the Deputy Prime Minister with his dismissive description of Mr Prescott "chasing angel fish round a coral reef".

He tried at first to laugh off this jab at his underwater fact-finding mission but making light of insults is not one of the Transport Minister's innate skills - a few seconds later the smile vanished and his ruddy suntan flushed an even deeper red.

Still, this cheered up Tory backbenchers and Mr Hague has also, I think, identified a promising pressure point with his suggestion that Parliament should be given increased powers to scrutinise government appointments of commissioners.

MPs on all sides of the house get excited at the idea of reviving their somewhat shrivelled powers - and it is very hard for Mr Blair not to sound like a killjoy when he squashes the notion flat in his reply.

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