HISTORY was made in the House of Commons this week, and not just by Tony Blair admitting he'd got something wrong.

MPs met for the first time behind a giant security screen. The idea behind the grille - which stretches from behind the first three rows in the public gallery up to the ceiling, and from one side of the chamber to the other - is to keep the MPs at a safe distance from the public.

The Commons authorities - who spent £500,000 on the bullet-proof barrier - say it is needed to keep our elected representatives safe in troubled times.

Indeed the work needed to be carried out so urgently the Easter recess was extended by a week for it to take place, rather than wait until the long summer break.

But it has not been very well received. The first argument is that it is a great waste of taxpayers' money.

And the MPs really ought to consider their views carefully, since they are the people sitting behind it.

Critics say that, to get as far as the public gallery, people curious enough to want to see our democracy at work have to pass through metal scanners and a variety of security checks.

And there has been very little bother in the past. Just a few protesters shouting at Tony Blair during his statement on the Hutton report.

The most interesting thing to happen from a public gallery - abseiling lesbians - was in the House of Lords a few years ago. And no screen is being erected to protect their Lordships.

Also, it is not even permanent. The authorities are going to build a new one, without unsightly struts holding it in place. The cost? An estimated £2 million.

The second objection is more political than practical. According to 30 MPs who've already signed an Early Day Motion, the direct, unobstructed relationship between public and Parliament is an "essential part of our democratic process".

Obstructing this with a barrier represents a "victory for criminal terrorist organisations".

Whatever its merits - and the only one would appear to be stopping someone trying to drop a toxic powder into the chamber - it could not save the Prime Minister from himself.

His U-turn to call a referendum on the EU constitution handed Tory leader Michael Howard a glorious opportunity. And he took it with glee.

On Tuesday - the day Mr Blair confirmed the referendum without ever actually uttering the magic word itself - Mr Howard gave him a mauling.

Mr Blair, who he dubbed the Grand Old Duke of Spin, had insisted at last year's Labour Party conference he had no "reverse gear".

"Today, we could hear the gears grinding as he came before us, lip quivering once again, to eat all those words that he has pronounced so emphatically for so long," Mr Howard said with a grin.

The PM tried to fight back by knocking down a selection of Euro myths, such as Brussels seizing control of UK oil supplies.

But his heart wasn't really in it and even he had to admit the Eurosceptics had waged a relentless and "I have to accept, partially at least, successful" campaign to date.

The next day, Blairite MP Chris Bryant, who represents Rhonnda, tried to help out at Prime Minister's Questions with a slavishly local question.

It backfired.

It was always the same when Mr Blair was in trouble, Mr Howard said. "Help me Rhondda. Help, help me Rhondda."

Updated: 11:04 Friday, April 23, 2004