Report leaves Hogg with barely a leg to stand on

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The right honourable gentleman," the Prime Minister said, referring to the Leader of the Labour Party in his most exasperated tones, "has been in Opposition so long that he doesn't understand." Behind him his colleagues - who have been in power for a very long time and who understand all too well - nodded in sage agreement.

The particular things that Mr Blair didn't understand were how a major warning on the dangers of E.coli contamination at abattoirs, failed to be transmitted to ministers and how an important report was altered to make criticism of food hygiene less strident. Professor Sir Hugh Pennington, the head of the group set up to investigate the Scottish E.coli outbreak, had earlier failed to understand these points as well.

Mr Major told the House: "Ministers didn't see the document, it is true; it was a working document!" His colleagues, he implied, only see idle, good-for-nothing documents; documents that spend all their time at night- clubs or drinking in filing cabinets.

"There are huge numbers of working documents of this sort every year. If they all came to ministers for them to read, nothing else would be done at all."

As for Mr Blair's other points, they'd all be dealt with in the statement to be made to the House later by Douglas Hogg, Secretary of State, so would he belt up and wait, like a good leader of the Opposition?

Mr Blair didn't wait, nor did the PM. As soon as Mr Hogg was called to speak, both of them made for the exit with a celerity that used to mark the playing of the national anthem at the Holloway Odeon.

Such dispatch was unnecessary, for Mr Hogg did not exactly leap to his feet. Indeed, he could not, his right foot being swathed in a large white bandage. During the weekend, Mr Hogg had tripped, and fallen down the stairs - leaving the Agriculture Secretary barely a leg to stand on.

But a man who has fallen down the stairs at Hogg Towers and survived is not easily depressed. What to others might have seemed the most unpromising ground to defend was an impregnable fortification, with every tiniest natural feature pressed into service.

The report had not been doctored to suppress criticism of hygiene standards. It was simply that "the first draft was regarded as rather unsatisfactory, and not fully reflecting the views of others who had taken part in the review". Why? But Mr Hogg had moved on.

Far from no one knowing about the report's original contents, "the fact of the review was explicitly referred to on page 18 of the Annual Report on the Meat Hygiene Service's first year of operations, which was presented to Parliament on 17 July 1996 and placed in the library of this House".

The "explicitly" is a gem, for surely no one could be expected to infer from an obscure mention of "the fact of the review", what the now altered report had originally said?

But Mr Hogg had moved on again, toes wiggling. "Standards are constantly improving," he averred, "and are substantially better now. This is a tribute to the Meat Hygiene Service, and to the Government for insisting on its creation".

So there we had it; the staggering truth. What had begun the day as an embarrassing revelation of extreme unhappiness with measures to combat E.coli was ending with it being touted as proof of an unalloyed government triumph.

After such a performance it was hard to disagree with the Prime Minister's sentiments: Labour has indeed been out of power too long.