Not since Sir Edward Carson's cross-examination of Oscar Wilde has any exchange brought about more comment, analysis and exegesis than Mr David Cameron's questioning of Mr Tony Blair in the House of Commons. After that, I am afraid, the comparison breaks down. Carson was nastier than Mr Cameron, just as Wilde was funnier than Mr Blair - though it did him no good in the end.
Then again, Carson confined himself to questions. So likewise did Mr Cameron's predecessors as Leader of the Opposition. Had they not done so, they would have been pulled up by Mr Speaker, as used to happen on numerous occasions in the past. Mr Cameron, by contrast, makes small speeches and is allowed to get away with it by an indulgent Speaker.
I owe this point to Roy Hattersley in The Guardian. To be fair to myself, I had noticed it too. Lord Hattersley, with his firsthand knowledge, confirmed what I had already suspected. Here as elsewhere, he knows what he is talking about. In the 1980s, he stood in many times for Neil Kinnock against Margaret Thatcher. His greatest fear was not what Mrs Thatcher might say but what Mr Speaker Weatherill might disallow.
Lord Hattersley made his objection after Mr Cameron's first session at Prime Minister's Questions. Matters were not greatly improved at the second session last week. Since his election, Mr Speaker Martin's failing has been to be over-tolerant to ministers and, in particular, to the Prime Minister, though this disposition has not been pushed to the extremes shown by Mr Speaker Thomas. Mr Speaker Martin is now extending his indulgence to the Leader of the Opposition. He should be equally strict with both sides.
Leaving aside these procedural matters, we can go on to what he has to say in these little speeches of his. He is, I feel, in danger of becoming what Edward Heath once called a one-club golfer. The club in question is, of course, the Government's - or it may be only Mr Blair's - dedication to the newfangled city academies.
The Conservatives are for them and will vote in favour of them if they are selective enough. To win Labour support on the back benches, the Government (or Mr Blair) does not want them to be selective at all. At any rate, it does not want them to appear to be selective, as with the academy to which the Prime Minister sends his own children. It is a wholly justifiable wheeze on Mr Cameron's part - an attempt, so far successful, to embarrass Mr Blair.
It may turn out to be something more than a wheeze if the Opposition does not, in the end, come to the aid of the Government (or Mr Blair), enough Labour MPs rebel and the measure fails to get through. In that event we are in dangerous waters. They are far over the horizon. For the moment, Mr Cameron should perhaps come up with something else.
He has, we are told, decided against having a "Clause IV moment". This is probably wise. What it means is an attack on his own party, or the crustier element in it, over some totemic but unimportant issue. Clause IV of Labour's old constitution talked of "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". It was composed by Sidney Webb in 1918; was designed to appeal to the City clerks who were then joining the party; and was cited by the Tories ever afterwards as evidence that Labour wanted to nationalise everything. Hugh Gaitskell tried to abolish it but was forced to retreat.
It can, however, be argued plausibly that he had his Clause IV moment shortly afterwards, when he took on the left and the conference over the bomb; just as Lord Kinnock had his moment in 1985, when he took on Militant and the Liverpool Council.
Mr Blair's moment, when he did really jettison Clause IV and not some symbolic equivalent, was, by contrast, quite tame. It came at the very end of his first speech to the conference as leader. I did not realise what he had been saying till he sat down, when someone drew the matter to my attention. Mr Blair's distinguished biographer, my colleague John Rentoul, found himself in the same oblivious position.
There must have been lots of others as well. The whole thing then went through nem. con., on the nod. Far from Mr Blair having a fight: no one even knew there was a battle going on.
It may be that what Mr Cameron needs is for someone to set up a few windmills for him to tilt at. But for the moment there are no windmills to be had, not even for ready money, with no chain of buyers involved. The nearest thing to one is provided by Mr Charles Kennedy.
He must feel sometimes that there is no justice in the world. Certainly no one could blame him if he did. Why, the poor chap is not allowed even a modest glass of whisky without accusations flying around alleging that he is a raging dipsomaniac. And yet, at two successive sessions of PMQs, while Mr Cameron was making his short speeches on city academies, Mr Kennedy was asking proper questions about what is prettily dubbed "rendition" or sometimes "extraordinary rendition".
On the first occasion, Mr Blair professed a lofty ignorance of the whole matter; on the second, he adopted the same ploy, to the accompaniment of some elaborate scorn, which was to the effect that no government could possibly know how many United States aircraft landed in or took off from this country, and when and where they did so. On the contrary: it seems to me to be information that is available, though it may take some time and trouble to dig it out. It ought surely to be possessed by the air traffic control agency which Mr Blair or one of his then minions, Mr Andrew Smith, promised would never be handed over to private ownership but which was promptly so transferred.
It may be that Sir Menzies Campbell, who has played a curiously ambivalent role in the recent Lib Dem excitements, should have taken over from Paddy Ashdown in 1999. But Sir Menzies, for all his admirable qualities - perhaps because of those very qualities - has always wanted the palm without the dust. He does not like the risk of an election. It was the same with the Speakership of the Commons. What is monstrous is for others to ask Mr Kennedy to "raise his game" - as monstrous as asking him to run as fast as Sir Ming - at the very moment when he has succeeded in embarrassing the Prime Minister more seriously than the leader of the Conservative Party has.Reuse content