The Sketch: At last - a good word to say about Charlie

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The Independent Online

Eager as always to keep a promise, I have to find something nice to say about Charlie Kennedy (there may not be another chance). I have two things to say. First: he was the finest student debater of his day. Too limited a compliment, you feel? Very well: he was the finest student debater of his year. Second: last week, he produced a question that floored the Prime Minister. We were so excited by the Tory debutant that we missed it.

He asked the Prime Minister about the 400 "rendition" flights that had passed through 18 British airports and when he was first made aware of them. Mr Blair replied: "In respect of airports, I do not know what the Right Honourable gentleman is referring to."

A reply of that bland sparsity is a sure sign the Prime Minister is concealing vast complications. Inside he'll be struggling like Laocoon. Had Mr Kennedy still been the finest student debater of the year he would have nailed the PM there and then, but the sad fact is that he's lost his hammer.

He returned to the subject again today, but owing to the great cheers (alas, from the bonobos opposite) he couldn't make himself heard, let alone understood. In another revealing reply, the Prime Minister read out verbatim the full text of the Foreign Secretary's parliamentary statement on the subject (another sure sign of Laocoon foundering).

Week two of Cameron afforded revealing glimpses for early doubters, or worriers. The despatch box is cruelly revealing, more so than the television screen. Tory supporters might worry their new leader only seems to have two natural registers. The first is a puppyish eagerness to get on with things, and the second is a teasing barb ("Is it to be the White Paper or the white flag?"). Both are enormously attractive at the moment, but the world will weary of them quickly if that's all he has to offer. He needs to be able to hit other notes and generate other moods. His third manner, which he has so far deployed on his second tranche of questions, is rather ponderous and respectable. If he's adopting it to show he has substance (the questions are, in truth, pretty balls-aching) it is a serious limitation.

The Prime Minister took six weeks to work out Michael Howard, remember. For the time being, he stands aimiably at the despatch box returning cut with thrust in a relaxed and good-humoured fashion. He's waiting to get the measure of his man. It's another example of his enormous operational superiority to the Chancellor - and probably everyone else in Parliament.

NB: The end of Punch and Judy is a great relief, as long as it lasts. But the end of cartoon conflict in the chamber isn't at all synonymous with consensus. It's not the end of argument, but the start of it.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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