The Sketch: Blame game kicks off as new owners try to stop the rot

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The Independent Online
YOU MIGHT have thought a three-month recess would have put paid to quibbles over inheritance which have occasionally made the House of Commons seem like a rowdy extension of the Court of Chancery.

It is as if the nation had died intestate on 1 May last year and ever since relatives have been bickering about the nature of the leavings. Was it a prosperous, well-managed estate now sliding into dereliction, as the Tories would have you believe, or a neglected property whose restoration would take years of patient endeavour, as Labour backbenchers frequently imply? Indeed, so doggedly ingrained is the instinct in Labour politicians to pass off all current problems on the delinquencies of their predecessors that when Elliot Morley made a ministerial statement on the Easter floods the other day, it wouldn't have been very surprising to hear him report that excess precipitation during a previous administration had been responsible for the high water levels, having taken several months to filter through to the offending water courses. He could then have pointed out that levels had been falling ever since, evidence of the long-sighted sagacity of Government policy.

Paddy Ashdown, who can afford to take a lofty view, describes this as "the blame game", and halfway through the first Prime Minister's Questions of the new session he suggested it was time to take up a different sport. The disapproving moos from both terraces suggested the fans aren't bored yet.

They got their fixture anyway, Mr Hague opening with a reference to "the Golden Legacy", the cue for roars of approval from his disinherited colleagues. A little later the Prime Minister responded, insisting the New Deal was working terribly well in the North-east but was taking time "to repair the legacy of the previous government".

The dry-rot treatment had been more expensive than originally envisaged, he suggested, and installation of central heating might have to wait a little longer.

The game has its hazards for both sides; Mr Hague must insist the roof is on the verge of caving in without giving the impression it was put up by cowboy builders in the first place: Mr Blair must moan about workmanship while doing nothing to dent the proprietorial pride of a first-time home- owner. Mostly he brings this off, but occasionally shows signs of pressure. There were problems at Rover's Longbridge plant, he conceded to Mr Hague a little earlier but they "would not be helped by the kind of idiotic hysteria he has just exhibited". He sounded testy at this point, which was a mistake - most MPs understand well that idiotic hysteria is an inalienable part of the game, best dealt with by the sort of soothing condescension you would use with a genuine delusional.

If anything, John Redwood ("they have taken 18 months to squander a golden legacy") exceeded his leader in synthetic consternation when he faced off against Peter Mandelson during a Private Notice Question about news that Rover might close Longbridge. "You're going over the top," shouted Labour backbenchers as he warned of a "tidal wave of recessions and closures" and it did seem he might have overshot, becoming so excited that at one point he found himself attacking the Today programme for right-wing bias: "The unions and workers were offered no right of reply on that programme," he noted indignantly. Perhaps he was trying to find a position from which he could squarely face a Labour minister who had just sternly insisted on the need for increased productivity from the workforce, but if this carries on I'm not sure what we should expect next - a passionate speech from Alan Clark on the importance of eating more British beef, probably.