Twice a year, the Prime Minister appears for two and a half hours before a group of MP’s in the Palace of Westminster to account for himself. I have a ring side seat at this event by dint of my Chairmanship of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (a committee whose title the PM has not yet managed to modernise)
When we started these exchanges three years ago, the serious political commentators were in attendance; now we just get the sketch writers – and some of them leave before the end.
At one minute to nine, Tony Blair arrives. A second later, the least worn jacket in the world is off his shoulders and on the back of the chair - looking visibly newer than the trousers that come with it; and two seconds later he asks “OK to take my jacket off?”
And away we go.
It is no secret that we Chairmen meet beforehand to discuss our strategy. I have previously commended my Labour colleagues on the Liaison Committee for their collaboration on a strategy designed to expose the weakness in their PM’s defence. I hope I don’t malign them by implying that, this time, as we approach a General Election, their appetite for this strategy was diminished. We were playing for a draw rather than a win.
We also have a coach, whose job it is to motivate us before the game. He has watched videos of former encounters and is an expert on the tactics and psychology of our opponent. His body language from his dug-out during the session is probably not captured by the cameras, but we observe and respect it, and respond when we can. (We have not reached the point where he stands on the touchline and holds up a card with our names on it and brings on a substitute.)
I have shared with readers my test as to whether you have asked the Prime Minister a significant, or irritating question. If you have, your Christian name wings its way back across the table, embedded in the reply.
This time, after several questions of growing impertinence from North West Hampshire, the PM had still not resorted to this familiarity. My time was running out, and I was due to the pass the ball to a colleague. So I asked him about his campaign against world terrorism. And this did the trick. “There is very basic, simple thing here, George.”
In his dug out, the coach could be seen to smile.