The Sketch: Blair the straight guy blinded by rhetoric

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The Independent Online

"Does the prime minister think he is still regarded as a 'pretty straight kind of guy' by the British people?" Anne Widdecombe's question sounded at first blush like the stupidest question of the year, unless... unless it was the cleverest. As you were, it was the stupidest. If she was expecting Tony Blair to collapse in a blubbering, Anglo-Catholic, confessional mess on the floor of the House she is sillier than she looks (cries of No! Shame! Impossible!).

"Does the prime minister think he is still regarded as a 'pretty straight kind of guy' by the British people?" Anne Widdecombe's question sounded at first blush like the stupidest question of the year, unless... unless it was the cleverest. As you were, it was the stupidest. If she was expecting Tony Blair to collapse in a blubbering, Anglo-Catholic, confessional mess on the floor of the House she is sillier than she looks (cries of No! Shame! Impossible!).

Ms Widdecombe flailed about herself like some vast, hand-jiving, voodoo priestess dressed in dusty lilac as the Prime Minister concentrated on the economy's high employment figures, its non-inflationary growth and the best school statistics in a generation. Actually, I suspect these three well-recognised achievements are the result of statistical twisting, but that's for another time. Michael Howard asked Ms Widdecombe's question but in a different way. First: the Moxon case. The civil servant who revealed the existence of an alternative immigration policy being operated out of his local office (allowing many immigrants to remain here, perhaps to disguise the influx on 1 May, when the accession countries accede).

Mr Howard pointed out that managers and ministers were still in post while the whistleblower had been suspended. Was this fair, he asked? Mr Blair looked winded. So he scoffed at the suggestion he should personally meet Mr Moxon but was further winded by Mr Howard's point that, being the minister in charge of the Civil Service, he might be interested in what the civil servant could tell him. "The idea that I personally take charge is absolutely ludicrous!" the Prime Minister said, reversing a long-standing convention that he be personally associated with eye-catching initiatives (saving calves from the knackers, cash-dispenser fines for yobs, invading Iraq).

More seriously, Mr Howard returned to the issue of (deep breath) wet age-related macular degenerative eye disease. We learnt last week that 2,800 sufferers would go blind before the year was out; the government decision to increase the time for treatment for three months to nine months is solely responsible for this. "There are 50 centres with the necessary specialists - would the Health minister stop chuntering from a sedentary position! - and the necessary resources ready to operate."

The Health minister stopped chuntering. Mr Blair, rattled as much as he has been over the last five years, claimed the 50 centres were "a private estimate" and obviously to be distrusted. He glowered as Mr Howard produced a letter from the Royal National Institute for the Blind. It listed the NHS hospitals that are waiting to perform the operations, but can't as their trusts haven't named the disease as a priority. Maybe it isn't a priority, but ministers ought surely to tell us why it isn't. A straight kind of guy could surely afford to be a little straighter.

These sufferers are fighting a battle between the light and the dark, and Mr Blair must make clearer which side he is on.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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