As Mr Blair was arguing for a statutory duty on police and councils to work together to fight crime, James Arbuthnot, an assistant government whip, was spotted apparently indicating to two MPs that they should leave the chamber.
Barely a handful of Conservative backbenchers were present when Mr Blair rose during the report stage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. In contrast, at least 50 Labour MPs were behind their would-be leader.
Anxious to spike an electoral threat, ministers and backbenchers have mocked Mr Blair for staying away from the chamber and not condemning the signal operators' strike.
At Prime Minister's Question Time, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, said John Major was in Edinburgh to greet the King and Queen of Norway on a state visit, and then added: 'Here in Westmin ster we await the visit of Mr Blair to the despatch box.' In fact he entered the chamber unnoticed as MPs were enjoying an attempt to introduce a Bill to prohibit the use of French words in written and spoken English.
Labour's new clause - defeated by 280 votes to 246 - would have placed a statutory duty for crime prevention on local authorities. Mr Blair said it was supported by the police, agencies connected with crime prevention and local councils - 'everyone except the Government'.
He said the Government had a narrow view of the police, seeing them just as law enforcers. 'Only one in 50 crimes ever leads to a conviction. So any policy which deals simply with catching criminals once a crime has been committed is one-sided and incapable of offering a solution.'
Pointing to examples of partnerships beating crime in Reading and Wigan and drug dealers in King's Cross, London, Mr Blair said the only reason the Government opposed a statutory duty was its 'dogma' about local government. If there was any other body that could be given the co-ordinating role, ministers would have agreed to it overnight. 'If that had happened (when recommended by a Home Office-instituted study in 1991), there would have been a boost to crime prevention and it would have been happening over the last two or three years.'
As Mr Blair was criticising the Government for failing to follow the crime prevention study recommendation, two Labour MPs protested at the behaviour of Mr Arbuthnot as he roamed the sparse Government benches.
Jeff Rooker, MP for Perry Barr, said the whip had asked two MPs to leave the chamber. 'Is it the fact that the whole of the Conservative Party has not the slightest interest in law and order and crime prevention whatsoever?'
David Winnick, MP for Walsall North, said: 'What the whips are doing is deliberately organising so there is not a single Tory backbencher left.' Later, outside the chamber, a still- fuming Mr Rooker accused the Tories of playing 'petty, childish, public school games'.
Charles Wardle, Under- Secretary at the Home Office, had certainly come prepared for a swing at the leadership favourite. After rejecting a statutory obligation for crime prevention because partnerships already existed, he said he wished Mr Blair well in his search for another job.
'He is eternally youthful, pleasantly earnest, capable of singing a catchy refrain, but not necessarily with much substance . . . I think he is the Labour Party's answer to Cliff Richard. Unlike Cliff he has failed to get into the charts and his law and order single certainly won't do that.' Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, smiled at this debunking of his adversary. He has had little to smile about during the passage of the police and courts Bill, which was heavily mauled by peers who feared too much power was being placed in the Home Secretary's hands.
Within the hour came further bad news for Mr Howard as the Lords amended his other big piece of legislation, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, watering down plans for secure training centres.
Traffic wardens would have taken on the additional duty of being language police, able to slap a pounds 10 fine on anyone heard using a French word, under a Bill proposed by Anthony Steen, Conservative MP for South Hams. Those whose fancy is anything from a croissant in a cafe to a menage a trois will be relieved that its introduction was rejected by 149 to 49.
Mr Steen said it was a tit- for-tat response to last week's ban by the French assembly on English words such as software, football and T-shirt. 'Every country in the European Union is proud of its status as a nation state, but the French have tipped the scales towards chauvinism.'
In retaliation, words like baguette and croissant would be banned in Britain, he said. 'You will not be able to visit a cafe or a brasserie. No hors-d'oeuvres. In fact, no restaurants. Crime passionel is out of the question and negliges will make liaisons dangereuses a little risque.'
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