The Sketch: An object lesson for Tories. Shame they are slow learners

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard returned to forensic form. It's a pity he's not in a courtroom. Parliament isn't the place for forensic display. No one's dressed for it, for a start. And there's no judge, the rules of evidence are bent, the purpose isn't justice but law, and the jury is rigged. And anyway, the Prime Minister is too agile, too supple, too bendy to be boxed in by questioning.

Michael Howard returned to forensic form. It's a pity he's not in a courtroom. Parliament isn't the place for forensic display. No one's dressed for it, for a start. And there's no judge, the rules of evidence are bent, the purpose isn't justice but law, and the jury is rigged. And anyway, the Prime Minister is too agile, too supple, too bendy to be boxed in by questioning.

Mr Howard used four separate questions to level his charges at Mr Blair: Why has homelessness doubled? Why is truancy up by one-third? Why have criminal detection rates fallen by 10 per cent? Why has our pension provision changed from being the strongest in Europe to the weakest?

These are all major items on the charge sheet.

The Prime Minister won the exchanges (to great rumbling applause from his side of the House) by replying in the following terms:

1) The vast majority of homeless people are living in high-quality homes.

2) There are 43,000 more pupils in schools.

3) The leader of the Opposition has been repudiated by a crime expert for disparaging the British Crime Survey.

4) The poorest pensioners have benefited to the tune of £40 a week under Labour.

"He didn't even mention detection rates!", Mr Howard complained between questions three and four. That was correct. He didn't mention detection rates at all. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

As it was the Christmas season, Mr Howard finished with seasonal greetings, the recommendation of a book published that day.

By the quality of the Tory jeering, the Home Secretary knew at once it was his biography, the one in which he committed the gravest crime a politician can.

He told the truth about his colleagues.

The same colleagues smiled quietly through the exchange; it was faintly sinister. Gordon Brown ("bully") twitched; Jack Straw ("mess") smirked; Peter Hain ("upsetting") grinned bloodlessly; Ian McCartney ("nitwit" - that's me, not Mr Blunkett) chuckled flatly.

They all looked to the front. No one comforted the Home Secretary ("beleaguered").

The Prime Minister responded in an interesting and rather brilliant way. "I've got my reading sorted out for the holiday," he said, as if cued. "A certain volume of Woodrow Wyatt's diaries."

"Owww!", we went. "Ooooo! Ohhhh! Not that!" This was going to be a below-the-belt defence of the Home Secretary.

And what is the best form of defence? It's tearing off the Opposition's manhood and eating it in front of him. Because Mr Howard, so Woodrow Wyatt asserted, had helped out with a 24-hour passport in an egregious example of what Mr Blunkett stood accused of. We held our breath as pity mixed with terror.

Mr Blair quoted something completely different. He quoted Mr Howard saying: "Unemployment doesn't matter". He repeated these words like an avenging barrister - yes, forensically - and left Mr Howard accused, sentenced and condemned in one deft passage of rhetoric.

It was an object lesson. But Tories are, almost by definition, I suppose, slow learners.

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