The Sketch: Cleaned-out Augean stables offer Howard little hope on the transport front

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's speech to the CBI (the one explaining why things are actually much better in the health service than anyone knows) provides us with the first practical test of Michael Howard's organisational ability. "Oh, it's early days," they say. It is very much later than they think.

Mr Blair has constructed himself a little statistical refuge in which to hide from the appalling NHS productivity figures (spending has gone up 20 per cent but hospital activity has gone up only 2 per cent).

Does Mr Howard have the resources - the manpower, the brainpower, the research power, the power to react quickly - to squash Mr Blair's new defensive system? It's the task of today, at PMQs.

If Mr Howard allows the new argument to be aired without an annihilating response, then cocky Conservative heads will start to droop again. No, the omens aren't good. Conservative Central Office, beaten in all EU hygiene criteria by the Augean stables, has been cleaned out. But is it working?

Transport questions offer no great hope. There is an argument to be won here: there are statistics and facts and comparisons and quoted authorities and a great deal of scornful mockery to be applied to the botched nationalisation of the railways. So where were they? We need muscle, we need knuckle, we need cunning and suppleness! The new shadow minister for transport was so torpid he might not have been awake in any scientific sense.

His two questions noted that trains were twice as late as they had been, that passenger targets had been abandoned, services had been cut and congestion had increased - and Alistair Darling reacted as he always does with an air of stifled boredom.

Unpleasant as it is to admit such a thing, Mr Darling has doused the fire in the transport debate by suffocating it. With carbon dioxide (his own). It is, in a very real sense, the triumph of dullness.

But where's the Tory vitality? Where's the research? Where's the inside information? Where are the glorious leaks that swamp the Government's fragile case? Where's the deadliness? For goodness sake, Tories, do buck up.

I went in to do some Sexual Offences but they'd been done so I stayed for the few moments available for Criminal Justice. David Blunkett was asked by Dominic Grieve (in the casting contest for Mr Punch he narrowly beats David Willetts) how many juries had been discharged because of nobbling.

It's a reasonable question, considering Mr Blunkett is using it as a foundation argument for doing away with certain trials by jury. How many, then? "Let's be absolutely clear," Mr Blunkett began his monstrous obfuscation. "Let's get this into the real world. Not the world where people are injected lethally." (huh?) "People don't intimidate or telephone or assault or put pressure on juries they think are going to be acquitted; people don't ..."

There was more, much more, parliamentary rubbish along these lines, but he didn't, as Edward Garnier pointed out a quarter of an hour later, make any attempt to answer the significant question.