The Sketch: Pantomime horse is upstaged by the Christian Soldier

AT THE end of Prime Minister's Question Time I looked down on the chief supporting actor, his brow furrowed as he leant across to engage David Willetts in earnest conversation. Mr Hague wore that look you adopt when you know that people are looking at you and you wish to appear entirely unconscious of their gaze.

His face radiated thoughtful assurance and command. Address me now, it suggested, and I will take a few seconds to acknowledge your presence, so engrossed am I by this fascinating discourse. Sorry? What was that about a crisis? Good Lord no! Whatever makes you say that?

I couldn't help but feel a certain admiration for Mr Hague's grit: we all act in our daily lives, of course, pretending to he happier or bolder than we actually feel, but few of us have to do it with such a large audience or in the teeth of open mockery of our performance.

Some 30 minutes earlier Mr Hague had risen to put his first question to the sound of laughter, a collective chortle that was designed to let Mr Hague know his embarrassments would be the unspoken theme of the day. He valiantly pressed on - surely this was just business as usual. It was as if a pantomime horse had entered the ring at Hickstead, its rider trying to maintain the pretence of normality, despite the fact that the back half of his mount was biting the front half's buttocks.

In any other circumstances Mr Hague's progress would have received a running commentary from the Prime Ministerial public address system - but yesterday Mr Blair hardly bothered to exploit his discomfiture, limiting himself to a couple of passing gibes about the mercurial nature of Conservative party policy. Instead the Prime Minister concentrated on adding further grace notes to his title role in the international co-production, Onward Christian Soldier. His problem, dramatically speaking, is that superlatives suffer from a law of diminishing returns: the attack would be pressed home with "utmost vigour", he told MPs yesterday; Nato was "utterly united" and to do nothing in the face of atrocity would be "the ultimate outrage". But he has said these things before and what he needs to add some vinegar to the lines, and get the upper circle on his side, is a villain.

Alan Clark obliged first yesterday, shouting out "absolute nonsense" as Mr Blair repeated his insistence that "every single precaution" had been taken to prevent civilian casualties. Labour backbenchers growled defensively, though not quite as loud as they did when Tony Benn rose to express the view that the continued bombing of Serbia amounted to "a war crime in itself". Mr Blair answered in the tone of sorrowing incredulity with which he greets almost all of Mr Benn's interventions these days.

As any good performer knows, however, a characterisation needs modulation if it is not to become dull and Mr Blair spotted the opportunity for some light relief, after an earnest request from Charlotte Atkins that he officially recognise chess as a sport. This seemed to strike several MPs as ludicrous - if chess was a sport then could crosswords be far behind? As Mr Blair balanced the rising hilarity of backbenchers against the guileless sincerity of Ms Atkins he appeared to make a decision to go with the majority. With a self-deprecating smile he confessed that "it's at moments like this that I look along the first bench in search of inspiration and don't find any".

Some of my more cynical colleagues took the view that this was a set- up, others that it was an inspired improvisation on Mr Blair's part, ready to sacrifice a backbench pawn to advance his cause. Either way it was a canny move, and a choice piece of parliamentary acting to boot.

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