Another week, another tragedy

Observations on prime ministerial condolences

At No 10 on Wednesday mornings, when Tony Blair summons his team to prepare for Prime Minister's Questions, I wonder if he says: "Right, lads, any massacres we can mention?" I ask this because in recent months Blair has repeatedly begun the half-hour session by invoking some disaster that has befallen the world in the previous seven days. He announces his sorrow at this calamity and says he is sure that the House will join him in sending condolences to the victims' families.

Blair is good at this sort of thing. Frowns form on his handsome brow and his voice steadies itself. He tries each time to make it seem a departure from custom that misfortune should have interrupted PMQs. So has there been an uncommon number of disasters recently? Or have the Blairites found a way to manipulate the mood of the most politically tricky part of the PM's week?

This is how it happens. Shortly before noon on Wednesdays, the Commons chamber fills rapidly with MPs. Many stand or squat on steps. The Speaker, Michael Martin, bawls for order. Excitement rises. Laughter melds with the buzz of chattery excitement. Martin cries: "Questions to the Prime Minister!" and the House hushes. Blair's first task is to list his engagements for the day. Up he stands, to heightened tension. And then: "Before I list my engagements for the day, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deep condolences . . ."

The phrasing is almost always the same. Do a word search on the Hansard website and you will see what I mean. The other day, it was "deep condolence to the Spanish people and the families of those who died in the terrorist attack in Madrid". Naturally, everyone murmured quiet agreement. In recent months, we have had "deep condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the British soldier who has been tragically killed in Afghanistan"; "deep condolences" to the governments of Japan and Turkey after attacks on their soldiers in Iraq; belated "deep condolences" to the family of the late Lord Williams; "condolences" to the people of Sweden after the death of (the not uncontroversial) Anna Lindh; "profound condolences" to all Saudis after bomb blasts in Arabia; a "message of condolence" to George Bush and Ariel Sharon after the Columbia space shuttle was lost - and many, many more.

These downbeat openings have interesting effects. They diminish the tension, make Blair seem above the level of debate. After he has expressed sorrow on everyone's behalf, it is somehow harder to pin on him any blame for disasters such as war-related violence, which it may be reasonable to do. The condolences project him as a statesman. They also make the first questions from other party leaders far harder, because they must begin by saying they agree with the Prime Minister. A few weeks ago, Charles Kennedy did not echo the condolences of the week, and Blair reprimanded him most indignantly.

The expression of solidarity and sorrow is an important diplomatic and human thing to do, but previous prime ministers have done it in the Commons only at times of exceptional disaster. With Blair, it is becoming an almost weekly habit. As a result, it is starting to grate.