The Sketch: Blair is a man of his word. We just don't know which word

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The Independent Online

Late For the European Scrutiny Committee, for a half-heard conversation between members and the minister. If you've been worrying about Europe, here's something to bite on. Regulation 308 has been abused. There is no legal basis for the Union's Health and Safety Agency (Bilbao). And yet the Government has approved it. The scrutiny reserve has been ignored. The committee has been treated with contempt.

Late For the European Scrutiny Committee, for a half-heard conversation between members and the minister. If you've been worrying about Europe, here's something to bite on. Regulation 308 has been abused. There is no legal basis for the Union's Health and Safety Agency (Bilbao). And yet the Government has approved it. The scrutiny reserve has been ignored. The committee has been treated with contempt.

I'm hazy on the details, as I say, it was a half-heard conversation and I was late, but that's the gist of it. All parliamentary conversations are only half-heard; nothing's decided in committee, only defended. But what happens when it's indefensible? What happens when legislation is illegal?

The Prime Minister was on great form at PMQs. "I know the whole House will join with me in congratulating the new President (masterful pause) of Afghanistan." (Huge reaction from Labour, of relief mainly.) He effortlessly dominated Charles Kennedy; it took a bit more effort to dominate Michael Howard but he managed it in the end.

Mr Howard pointed out that Tessa Jowell had declared there was no contact between the gaming industry and her department on the subject of money-laundering and that he'd got an e-mail telling a different story.

"Lame opportunism," Mr Blair called it. "Absurd," he said. "E-mail" (with great contempt). "That he is implying corruption on the basis of some e-mail is simply absurd!" This is the Prime Minister's most ingenious defence yet. You can't get rid of e-mail no matter how often you delete it. As evidence it is unbeatable. It is so good the Prime Minister has had to declare it inadmissible. The idea of a "corrupt conversation" between the Government and monied industry? "Completely absurd!" Priceless.

The figures for Iraqi civilian deaths seem to be absurd as well. Nothing like 20,000. They're only 3,000 and that's including terrorists. "The situation is very simple," he began, but it was hard to listen to anything about Iraq that starts with, "The situation is very simple".

Howard Flight asked an important question. Would the Prime Minister guarantee not to raise the upper level for national insurance contributions? (There is a black hole they have to fill.) The Prime Minister said: "We have absolutely no plans to do so." What was he trying to say? It depends what the meaning of the words "absolutely", "no", "plans", "we", "have" and, "to do so" is. Remember the decision to send the Black Watch to Fallujah hadn't been taken either.

Back to European scrutiny. The minister felt "chastened" by the experience. But would she go back and put it all right again? No, they were too far into "the process" to worry about whether it was legal or not.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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