The Sketch: Hague gets a sharp lesson in trading business cards

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THERE WAS a time when the question "Is the director general of the CBI a Tory?" could have been used as one of those sarcastic paraphrases for "Yes", along the lines of similar questions about the religious affiliations of the Pope or the lavatory habits of bears. But you can't rely on anything these days - bears, it seems, may be rethinking their long fidelity to al-fresco evacuation.

During Prime Minister's questions yesterday, Mr Blair read out a statement from the director general of the CBI which offered the Government a resounding defence against recent charges of fiscal vandalism - not just a defence, in fact, but one that crumpled up Francis Maude's final defiant soundbite yesterday and flicked it back in his face. "This downturn wasn't made in Downing Street," Mr Blair read out, with the grin of a man who has just picked up the fourth ace in a poker game and knows he has another one tucked into the top of his sock.

Mr Hague's hand was considerably weaker but that wasn't going to stop him trying to bluff his way out of trouble: "Why doesn't he listen to the West Midlands chairman of the CBI?" he began, in tones of weary exasperation at Mr Blair's continuing obtuseness. Even if the Prime Minister wanted to, the roars of derision from the Labour benches made compliance with this impossible. Mr Hague knew very well that this was a feeble piece of name-dropping: a perfect example of one-downmanship, in fact - so he had come with a follow-up, in which he valiantly tried to pretend that the laughter had been aimed at someone else. People would draw their own conclusions, he said, shaking his head sorrowfully, when they saw the Labour party "laughing at business people in the front line and listening to people sitting in offices".

Offices? Sitting? How scandalously insulated the top brass at the CBI have become from the harsh realities of contemporary Britain! Mr Hague, of course, currently operates from a folding table set up on the factory floor of Amalgamated Plastics of Sydenham - determined to share the daily hardships of our boys in the manufacturing trenches. He lost the battle, incidentally, giving away several yards of shell-churned ground despite a vigorous late counter-attack on Mr Blair's weakest salient - the PR referendum bulge.

The Prime Minister, having vainly tried to hold the line at "envisaging" a referendum in this Parliament, yesterday conceded that it is now just an "option". Any suggestion that this constituted a retreat would be defeatist, you understand, it is simply an overdue rationalisation of the defensive line.

The war which provided Mr Hague with his military terminology came up again later - after an announcement from the Speaker that Parliament would observe the two-minute silence on Armistice Day next week. This is a sacrifice that the nation will take in its stride, I think, particularly since it falls in the morning, when no one in the Chamber will be saying anything anyway. The only business to be affected will be that taking place in parliamentary committees, which is doubly unfortunate, since these are the only public spaces in the House of Commons where, very occasionally, an awkward question will actually get an answer.

How much better if this merciful abstention from speech could eclipse one of the beauty-contest interrogations with which ambitious Labour backbenchers currently deface Prime Minister's Questions. The creepy ones - in which smirking MPs invite the Prime Minister to agree with their assessment that he is the best thing since sliced bread - are bad enough. But the pious ones are somehow even worse. At least sycophancy has an end in sight.

Inviting the Prime Minister to say that peace in the Middle East is a good thing, as Linda Perham did yesterday, is a waste of precious sparring time. Peace is all very well outside Parliament, but inside it's absolutely deadly.