The Sketch: Tony taken to task for making William's friend cry

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Indy Politics
TONY BLAIR had something to say in Prime Minister's Questions, which made a nice change. He always has statements, of course, not to mention ripostes, rebuttals and rhetorical questions. But all these are vapid utterances, important less for their content than that they fill up what would otherwise be vacant space.

Yesterday though, after Lawrence Cunliffe had nervously teed up a question about the Northern Ireland agreement, Mr Blair didn't just take an air shot for the photographers - he actually hit the damn thing. On Monday the Government had rejected amendments asked for by Unionists and Conservatives. Yesterday, Mr Blair revealed, the Government proposed to table amendments itself, including one that would embed a clear timetable into the legislation.

What a wonderful thing politics is! Less than 24 hours before, Mo Mowlam had insisted that this matter was out of her hands, since General John de Chastelain was in charge of an independent body and couldn't be told what to do. Overnight he had, quite independently, decided it would be a good idea anyway and the Conservatives were sufficiently grateful for the adjustment not to question how it had come about.

In any case William Hague had Heather Begbie to worry about. Heather is 11 years old and Mr Blair has been making her cry, by threatening to send her to the rough school down the road, instead of the private school she attends under the assisted places scheme. What's more he had actually promised that he wouldn't make little Heather cry. He didn't single her out, of course, since he had no need to paint a picture of an innocent young life blighted by the shameful duplicity of the Labour Party, but he does seem to have offered an assurance about assisted-place pupils which rather oversold his party's manifesto policy. Mr Blair got a bit strenuous when this was pointed out, always a sign that he's not sure of his footing, and he became even more strident when Mr Hague accused him of not keeping his promises. "The words he has quoted were written after the election not before it", Mr Blair insisted Jesuitically, as if Labour's popular mandate included the right to tell as many porkies as were deemed politically useful. Proceedings were getting very raucous by now, so much that Betty Boothroyd snapped: "Let's cool it. It's not bucket and spade time just yet". But her remark increased the holiday mood rather than dissipating it.

Backbenchers took advantage of one of few remaining chances to tease Paddy Ashdown, booing him as he stood up, and even the Prime Minister rolled his trousers up, to take a paddle in the shallow waters of parliamentary wit. Alan Simpson, a Labour left winger, had jokingly expressed the hope that his question would not damage his chances of promotion: "It was such a good question he should keep his pager by him at all times" said a smiling Mr Blair, who is more likely to give Heather Begbie a cabinet post.

Mr Hague had one last go at the Prime Minister, raising the new discrepancy between the legislative sway of Scottish, Welsh and English MPs. It's true that the Prime Minister is bound to look a bit woolly about this issue, since he can't openly state the truth, which is that most Englishmen think the Scottish and Welsh assemblies are slightly Mickey Mouse affairs in comparison to Westminster and so don't feel the slightest bit envious of their neighbours' notional advantages.

If Mr Hague thinks this is acombustible matter then he should think again, he would stand a better chance getting a housebrick to burst into flames. Even Tory backbenchers contractually bound to flare up whenever their leader applies a match could only manage a fuming smoulder. Sometimes there is smoke without fire.

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