The Sketch: Dodge. Weave. Duck. Blair wins again

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The Independent Online

The House reacted by moving from one vast, unlovely, collective buttock to the other. Without wanting to be pedantic, I'm not sure Butler did deal with that. It certainly wasn't in the report. The Prime Minister faces the charge, documented from his own office, that he knowingly misled the country to war. He lightly brushes it aside and we move on.

When people forget why they dislike Mr Blair he will still be there, as formidable as ever. No one else can deal with opposition as he does.

Yesterday, Michael Howard was positive, caring, concerned; he was putting forward a plan to deal with the multi-vulnerabilities of the Third World. He argued for an Advocacy Fund to help Africa hire lawyers for the trade negotiations in Hong Kong.

After the Prime Minister had finished with this, it appeared that Mr Howard was an old-fashioned neo-colonialist who wanted to reduce aid, tie Africa up in red tape and dramatically increase Third World suffering. That is a rhetorical achievement no other politician could manage, certainly not Gordon Brown.

Mr Howard moved on to what is generally thought to be more solid ground: the Prime Minister's unreliable word. He referred to Mr Blair's appearance 20 years ago to the selection committee (he was pro-Europe) and his address to the electors a few days later (anti). Mr Blair addressed the moral charge by saying he had to support the manifesto but he wanted his committee to know he would be working internally for the opposite view. With one bound he was clear.

Then he addressed a more current accusation. He told the Commons our rebate would not be negotiated away, yet promised the opposite to the Euro-parliament. To this he produced an even more complete defence. The rebate is a function of the Common Agricultural Policy, if the cost of the CAP is reduced then the rebate would, naturally, be reduced as well. With another bound he was clearer still. The Tories say Blair lies. That you can't believe a word he says. Many of us believe this to be true (though it's damned hard to cite a significant number of actual, downright, copper-bottomed lies). We can agree he's slippery. But this shouldn't obscure the fact that he is the most formidable wrangler in the political class. Nobody argues as powerfully as he does, in more varied forums than he does, defeating such a wide range of opponents as he does. Really, are they sure they want to be rid of him?