Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Rob Tony Blair of the reputation for winning and you have robbed him of everything

Rob Tony Blair of the reputation for winning and you have robbed him of everything

Catch your opponent unawares. Hit him with an accusation which he cannot come straight back at and answer. While he flails, change the subject fast. Move to a new charge. Keep changing the subject before your opponent has got to grips with the last one. Be like a Boy David with his sling, light on his feet, dancing round an infuriated Goliath of a rebuttal machine which wheels round too late to hit back.

This was William Hague’s technique at Prime Minister’s Questions when he led the Conservative party. In the Commons it worked. Mr Hague was the last Tory leader able regularly to get the better of Tony Blair. Mr Blair is not easily tripped, so Mr Hague’s success was fun for us parliamentary sketchwriters to report.

The typical exchange went something like this (though I don’t think ‘wanker’ is a parliamentary expression; the implication, however, was there):

William Hague: How many same-day prosecutions at evening sittings have actually been initiated in the magistrates’ courts since 1997?

Tony Blair: What’s important is that crime is falling under Labour and police numbers are up, unlike under the Tories.

WH: He doesn’t know, does he? The answer is ‘none’, which shows that he’s a wanker, so perhaps he could tell us how many of his new City Academies appear in the top 100 of his much-hyped schools league table?

TB: I’m not a wanker, and why doesn’t he talk about crime under the Tories? [shouts of ‘And why don’t you answer the question?’]. I am answering the question [mock-squeals of ‘Ooooh’] — and as for City Academies the point is that they were never supposed to … [reply lost in laughter].

Mr Speaker: Order!

WH: Oh dear, he doesn’t know the answer to that either, does he? The answer is ‘none’, which shows he’s a double wanker, so perhaps he could remind us of the target he set in May 1997 for average waiting times for hip operations — or is that another case of all mouth and no trousers?

TB: How dare he talk of inaction when the Tories did nothing — [shouts of ‘Hip operations! Hip operations!’] I’m coming to hip operations when I’ve dealt with City Academies, which have been a great success, [shouts of ‘League tables! League tables!’] — and if anyone’s a double wanker it’s him, and as for …what was it? [jeers of ‘Wake up!’] …er, hip operations [Health Secretary tries to pass TB a note], we all know why the Tories keep running down the National Health Service, so they can….

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