The Sketch: A stirring score draw but new boy missed an open goal

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The Independent Online

There had been some howling when Michael Howard entered. A few creature-of-the-night noises. When he stood up, a few Labour backbenchers held up their fingers in a sign of the cross and there was hissing. It was the sort of behaviour that makes it so difficult for sketch writers to restore the dignity of public service. But when Mr Howard took his grip on the dispatch box, pointed his serious face at the Government and started to speak, then the great, institutional silence of the House of Commons - a highly charged, thrilling silence - fell across the chamber and the Tory party felt itself back in the game.

Amid a number of quips, gibes, jabs, feints and accomplished insults, Mr Howard pointed out that the running costs of government had risen by £7bn, preparing the ground, it is safe to assume, for the Tory position of reducing costs to deliver tax cuts. Mr Blair answered in the usual way.

"Two questions asked and neither answered," Mr Howard observed. "Not a good start." Some of us thought "what magisterial poise, what weight, what substance". Others harrumphed: "Well, get used to it, matey." Yes, a previous Conservative leader had totted up the number of unanswered questions he'd asked the Prime Minister. It was about 500. We'd all laughed then as well.

Cosy laughter. Not a good start.

Here's a depressing thought. What if Mr Howard turns out to be Hague-plus?

Intelligent, clever, witty, merely with added wallop? Then we're in for another two years of this pounding: to every Tory charge of waste we'll get the response we've always had: "We want to put money in and you want to take it out." Even Mr Howard's big hit - Tony Blair's previous commitments to pulling out of Europe, attacking American "state terrorism" - had a sense of déjà vu about it. Hague has done it all before. Did it work then? Well, did it? There's only one way out of this and the route was clearly shown by a Labour backbencher. David Taylor loftily condemned the Government for the NHS forensic service which is being sold "in a fire sale privatisation drive".

Mr Howard should have marched on to this common ground shared by Tories and New Labour and pitched his tent there, in the most visible spot: "I must defend the Prime Minister against his reactionary backbencher. The Government's programme to privatise parts of the NHS is good, solid Tory policy. The government pinched our private finance initiative and used it to put £100bn of private money into public services.

"The principle is right. The values are right. The Prime Minister is right in principle and if he'd done it right in practice he could be taking 10 pence off the basic rate of income tax as well!"

I guarantee that the effect of this on the Labour backbench would be electrifying. There are between 150 and 200 Labour members who would be driven decisively towards Gordon Brown by this sort of language.

Parliamentary rhetoric, for the first time in living memory, could actually be a decisive force in splitting a government.