The Sketch: A good bedside manner helps the medicine go down

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The Independent Online
AS SOMEONE who always looks the other way when being given an injection I rather like the idea of taxation by stealth. Gordon Brown's circumspection about the more painful aspects of his Budget strikes me not so much as sly evasion, more as a tactful bedside manner.

Don't tell me when you're going to jab it in, or how big the needle is, just get on with it. Before the muscles can tense in dread the operation may well be over. Much better than the dull ache I get when I'm obliged to look at my pay slip without the anaesthetic of ignorance. Then again, I've always taken a rather fatalistic attitude to taxation, a fatalism reinforced by the vague feeling that even if it hurts it's somehow doing me good.

I imagine this puts me in a minority - Mr Hague must think so because he has decided to attack the Chancellor head-on as a sneak-thief. On Tuesday he described him as the kind of man who offers to buy you a drink and then borrows a fiver off you to do it. Yesterday he spoke more bluntly about the Pickpocket Chancellor.

Mr Blair is naturally obliged to contradict this depiction of his colleague as a robbing hood and came armed with statistics to do it.

Nothing complicated, you understand. As Mr Hague pointed out Mr Blair would rather not stray into the denser thickets of the Red Book, from whose fiscal entanglements a successful ambush might be launched. Instead he had a single figure to fire back against every Tory with a tabled question.

Laurence Robertson was the first to take incoming, despite the fact that his question bore no relation to the Budget at all. A minor detail like that wasn't going to deprive Mr Blair of an early opportunity to crow: 11,000 families were now better off in Mr Robertson's constituency as a result of the Budget, he announced triumphantly. Conservative members slumped a little as they realised that this rather dubious statistic was the only thing on the menu for the day.

William Hague was after a different figure - and had chosen his words carefully to try and flush it out from cover. What was the total tax increase for the coming year as a result of the Government's budgets to date? He stressed the plural and asked for the answer "in pounds", which sounded rather schoolmasterly of him.

He probably would have liked Mr Blair to show his workings too, but the Prime Minister wasn't even going to tackle this particular sum, responding with the incredulity of a pupil who has just been asked to calculate how long it would take five men to dig a trench thirty feet in length, when everybody knows you would hire a sub-contractor with a mechanical digger for such a job.

Taxes had gone down, he said, shaking his head that Mr Hague should be so hopelessly out of touch. For a while backbenchers hooted at each other like the audience for Play Your Cards Right - "Higher, higher!" shouted the Tories; "Lower! lower!" Labour yelled back.

"Let's cut the waffle and answer the question," said Mr Hague, but Mr Blair was enjoying his waffle too much to countenance any such thing, served as it was with a syrup of institutional approval (he later read out the highlights of the International Monetary Fund's glowing end-of- term report) and a thick side order of ham.

He was enjoying it so much that he almost forgot his most important obligation on these occasions. Mr Ashdown came to his rescue, looking up at the clock as the Prime Minister belted out a prophecy of ever-increasing prosperity, and realising that we were dangerously close to the end of Prime Minister's Questions. When Mr Blair paused for breath, he seized his chance: "What, no boom and bust?" he shouted. Mr Blair, seconds away from a ghastly breach of precedent, gratefully repeated the phrase and departed.