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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Questions over Blair's Commons blunders
Prime Minister Tony Blair at question time
Tony Blair was determined to get across the government message
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

If there is one sure-fire way to insult an Australian, it is to mistake him for an American - especially where his war record is concerned.

And if there is one way to delight an opposition leader it is to suggest he should really be occupying the prime minister's seat at question time.

Tony Blair managed both within the space of about 10 minutes on Wednesday.

With Australian prime minister John Howard and four of his predecessors sitting in the Commons gallery watching proceedings , Mr Blair announced he was to create a "proper and fitting war memorial to those American servicemen and women who lost their lives" in two world wars.

Clearly embarrassed by his blunder, he attempted to apologise: "Forgive me, Australian servicemen and women, forgive me."

But faced with a barrage of jeers from the Tory benches, he kept digging: "Well, there were many good allies in those conflicts."

And just moments later - being quizzed by Mr Hague over his policies on law and order - he declared, in a noticeably shaky voice: "If he wants to be taken seriously on crime let him stand at this despatch box now..."

Deeply trivial

That may, of course, be the only invitation Mr Hague ever gets to stand at the government despatch box, but he wasn't going to let that thought put him off his stride.

"Oh, I will stand at his despatch box and be taken seriously on crime which he never will," he replied.

And he went on to harry Mr Blair over the number of government-introduced curfew orders that have been implemented - apparently zero, his plans to tackle football hooliganism and his abandoned proposal to force drunken louts to pay on-the-spot fines from cashpoint machines.

Not for the first time, Mr Blair attempted to turn the tables by asking Mr Hague about his own policies.

But even that went awry when he snapped: "let's get him off what he likes to talk about" - presumably so everyone could focus on what the prime minister wanted to talk about.

Much of this seemed deeply trivial and insubstantial, but it spoke volumes about the prime minister's current state of mind.

And even normally loyal Labour backbenchers were left admitting that the prime minister had made one of his worst Commons performances yet.

Full of jokes

He has been suffering his most turbulent period in office and the latest rows over spin doctors and his sliding opinion poll ratings appear to have taken a significant toll.

His urgent priority is to move the political agenda back onto his own ground and to concentrate on policies.

And he entered question time armed with a stack of briefs about Labour's record of success and a new soundbite about "substance rather than spin" - a quote which will have made his beleaguered spin doctor Alastair Campbell wince. But it just didn't come off.

Mr Hague was as full of jokes as ever, but all the damage was done by Mr Blair himself.

He looked weary, even dispirited, and he was noticeably unnerved by the turn of events.

Of course, it all could be down to loss of sleep thanks to the infant Leo Blair, but many on Labour's own benches are now openly wondering whether the prime minister has been harder hit by his bout of mid-term blues than they had realised.

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05 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Labour dubbed 'government of gimmicks'
03 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair backs down on fining 'louts'
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