The Sketch: Anything one can do, the other can do better

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The Independent Online

I don't know about Gordon Brown but Mr Blair certainly took me by surprise. I was in my bath when the balloon went up. Whoop, whoop, whoop! I went into action wringing wet and wearing nothing but a dressing gown. Let's not think about that too closely.

The Prime Minister's monthly press conference is normally held at midday. Yesterday, it started two hours earlier, coinciding exactly - or clashing dramatically, as we experts say - with Mr Brown's long-scheduled speech on international aid.

Mr Brown's the caring one, you see, he does babies and hungry people. But Mr Blair wants to do babies and hungry people too. Mr Brown and Mr Blair are a bit competitive when it comes to what we now call "the vulnerable".

And not just with each other. They make it a point of pride to outdo the public as well. So they pledge £15m for tsunami victims but find themselves outstripped by the public giving £50m. But by the time they have pledged £50m the public has already given £100m.

So Mr Blair trumps us all by saying he is pledging "hundreds of millions". In fact, "there is no ceiling". So there. Anything you can give, the Government can give more. Or least pledge more. There is an observable difference as millions of "the vulnerable" would testify. If they weren't too dead to do so.

Mr Blair was asked whether the Government had fulfilled its pledge to the Iranian earthquake victims last year. He'd have to get back to us on that one. They pledge you see (our cash, incidentally, though they get the credit), and once the headlines die down, we learn that the money is to be given over five years, and partnership agreements have to be set up and contracts drafted, and accountability processes have to be established, and by the time all that's done the people who needed the money are either white bones in the dust, or back to what passes for normal life out there in their marginal economic niche.

Maybe Mr Blair senses that. Maybe it fits in with his election communications grid. He is talking a lot about action. He's not interested in talking about things, he wants things done. He wants people to do as they're told and engage in the political process and vote and establish tolerant communities and write off debts and redouble their efforts to be good to each other and work hard and save and commit themselves to lifelong learning.

If he didn't suffer from such attention deficit disorder he might be able to deliver some action of these grand ambitions. But it's very hard to acquire a lease for a specialist school with a private partner at the same time as invading Iraq.

Mr Blair looked quite testy at his conference, I thought, and tired. Yes, he looked quite run down after his holiday. And on a completely different subject: what about the briefing wars that are said to dominate relations between himself and the Chancellor? "I don't engage in the briefing business myself," he said. Mee-yow!

The odds, I notice, on Mr Blair leaving office this year have shortened to 2-1. I'd say that was a reasonable bet. If you've ever resigned and worked out your notice you will have been aware of the disappearing act in which you suddenly star.

People stop talking to you, they stop acknowledging you in the corridor. Maybe that's what we were watching yesterday: the first flickering indications of Mr Blair's long dissolve.