Perhaps it was the long break, or, more likely, the fact that Tony Blair is the lamest of lame ducks, but the first PMQs after the Parliamentary recess was not a stunning success for the Prime Minister. So bad was his performance that it has cast fresh doubt over his plans to stay in power until next summer as a chorus of MPs including loyal Blairites called for him to stand down.
The funniest moment was when Blair suffered a syntax error and announced the deportation of foreign secretaries instead of foreign prisoners. Actually that would have been the most sensible policy announcement he’s made.
The Tory benches were on ebullient form. When a Labour backbencher asked about the NHS, Tory MPs started shouting, “Cuts, cuts, cuts”. Tony Blair ignored them and warbled on about how fantastic everything is. David Cameron popped up: “There we have it, Mr Speaker, no buts, just cuts.” The Tory backbenchers roared in behind him, creating an ocean of noise.
Dave “Give me Sunshine” Cameron could do no wrong, although perhaps the truth is that Mr Blair could do no right. Dave’s first topic was the prisons crisis and Mr Blair gave a less than convincing rebuttal. Dave demanded to know why the foreign prisoners had not been deported automatically.
“What the Home Secretary is doing, very sensibly,” said Mr Blair, “is ensuring that all those foreign secretaries . . .”
The chamber went berserk at the idea of foreign secretaries being deported. Margaret Beckett, for whom deportation would be a kindness, looked alarmed. MPs hooted with laughter. “There’s not much of a recovery after that one,” admitted Mr Blair.
He was right. On the next subject, the NHS, he gave a rambling defence that sounded very tired. Then Dave asked the killer question. In January Mr Blair had backed the Chancellor as his successor. “Do you still think that today?” Mr Blair said nothing. The Tories were screaming. Labour MPs looked stunned. Gordon pursed his lips. John Reid crossed his arms and his legs. Finally, to the baying crowd, Mr Blair muttered: “I don’t resile from anything I said.”
It was as real as a pantomime cow. Mr Blair then insisted that, instead, he would talk about Tory policy on the NHS. This was so rambling that the Speaker interrupted him and told him to stop. The Speaker! This is a man who is afraid to say boo to a goose. But then Mr Blair wasn’t a goose: he was a duck, and a lame one, and even the Speaker could see it.
Mr Cameron was on the crest of the wave now: “Do you back the Chancellor as your successor? Yes or no? I mean, I do. Do you?” More screams but, again, Mr Blair demurred. “I’m sure he is a lot happier talking about that than he is about policy. But I am going to talk about policy! Yes I am!” Dave shouted: “Everyone can see that this Government is divided and paralysed!” Mr Blair retorted that there was no paralysis and said lots of other words but all anyone heard was “quack, quack, quack”.
With this lousy performance, the all too obvious failure of his foreign policy, his domestic policy scarcely any better and the cash for peerages investigation getting ever closer to him, I can’t see Blair hanging on until next Summer. It would be a kindness to put him out of his misery now.