The Sketch: Hague fails to draw blood in clash over health service

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THE PAST three weeks of Labour in-fighting and turmoil should have been the perfect backcloth for a nuclear attack by William Hague against the Prime Minister. But, like many an over-hyped advance billing, the expected grudge match failed to materialise.

The pre-planned soundbites drafted by Mr Hague may have looked good on paper but they failed to deliver the knock-out blow Tories were hoping for. Methinks he had prepared too much. Both sides fielded a full turn- out and a tanned but tense Prime Minister waited anxiously for Mr Hague's opening salvo. First, though, Mr Blair had to endure the nightmare of Jim Dobbin (Lab, Heywood & Middleton) droning on about the sense of occasion he felt at "asking the first question in the last year of this millennium - I feel very important". He could not see Mr Blair looking irritated and impatient as he bored on, telling the Prime Minister how marvellous the New Deal and the latest unemployment figures were.

A momentarily hushed House then waited for Mr Hague, who wondered if Mr Blair regretted Frank Dobson's comments in autumn that the NHS could face the possibility of the winter with confidence.

The question fell flat and Mr Blair looked relieved and relaxed at the mere mention of the word "health". Adopting the tactic of Margaret Thatcher, he splattered endless statistics around the Chamber in an enthusiastic, confident, manner.

It took him no time at all to say any current shortcomings were the result of the Tory years of NHS mismanagement. True or not, while this tactic may one day eventually run its course, it still plays well for the moment with Labour MPs. The opportunity was now presented for the Prime Minister to reveal details of his secret, Princess of Wales-style visit to an accident and emergency unit the previous evening. At first hand, he said, he was told of the shortage of nurses and lack of investment, which he blamed on the Tories' record. Mr Hague retorted that Mr Blair always had to blame someone else.

But he then made a misjudgement by weaving the events surrounding the recent scandals and resignations into the same batch of questions. Normally Mr Hague sensibly raises his second issue later on during question time but yesterday he fired all his ammunition at once in a scatter-gun approach. While the tactic was not a total disaster, neither was it a roaring success, and enabled Mr Blair to riposte with: "It didn't take him long to get off the health service."

The Tory leader continued firing indiscriminately at the Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson targets but Mr Blair ducked and dived as the bullets merely grazed him without drawing any blood.

Mr Hague's best line was when he denounced suggestions of Mr Mandelson's early return to government. "The comeback kid is the kick-back kid." This got his troops cheering politely but they looked mildly disappointed. Nick Hawkins (C, Surrey Heath) raised the holiday absence of the Blair children from school after term had started but he was shot down in flames by the Speaker. "We don't allow our families to be used as battering-rams." It was left to the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, to put the boot into Labour's alleged failure to deliver their promises on crime, health and education. Unusually, he went for the Prime Minister with an aggressive, shrieking voice that belied the lovey-dovey relationship they are supposed to enjoy. It may have been overdone to keep in check disgruntled Liberal Democrats who do not like talk of pacts with Labour. Whatever Mr Ashdown's motives, Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover) shouted to Mr Blair: "Sack him," which got the best laugh of an otherwise scrappy and scruffy session.