The Sketch: Conservatives need to learn the post-modern slither

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The Independent Online

However much the political class talks of equality, politics is intensely hierarchical. Who you are and how long you've been that person determines what you are allowed to say and to whom you can say it. It used to be like that in public schools. It still is in hen houses. And the House of Commons.

The new Tory MP Jeremy Wright had his name on the order paper to ask the Prime Minister a question. He hasn't been Jeremy Wright MP for more than five minutes so there are very many more wrong ways to conduct himself than right ones. His question went as follows: "In 1993, the Chancellor said, 'I want the end of means-testing for pensioners.' Does the Prime Minister feel bound by this commitment?" Then, in an action that showed great talent and enormous promise, he sat down. His question was modest without being humble, cunning without being clever, delicate without being fragile. Mr Wright showed that he has the touch and that marks him out as a rarity in his party.

Poor Michael Howard has no such touch. He is hierarchically allowed to be rude to the Prime Minister but it avails him less and less. His failure is mysterious but it carries a large lesson for his party.

Mr Howard is modern and forensic; the Prime Minister is post-modern and political. Mr Howard is logical, linear and rigid; the Prime Minister is as supple as a serpent. Michael Howard's system is based on right and wrong; Tony Blair is beyond right and wrong. A small example: yesterday he praised fulsomely the character and contribution of asylum-seekers. And immediately praised fulsomely the fact the number of asylum applications had halved. You can't have it both ways? You can't, he can. His brilliant career is a monument to having it both ways. "We are the party of the individual because we are the party of the community," he wrote in this very paper a decade ago. Yesterday he lamented with Tony Wright that EU cows get more subsidies than three million Africans get in wages - yet he was the very EU president who authorised the farm deal for another decade.

Michael Howard's solid, argumentative rationality is the very antithesis of the prime ministerial slitheriness. So why aren't the media headlining his performance yesterday as: "Michael Howard mauls Government over tax credits." He certainly mauled as much as he could. But he has no touch. We saw Mr Blair taking the force out of Mr Howard's attack simply by agreeing with it. "We accept entirely these criticisms and I apologise to the families affected," he said (without having to add, "On my Chancellor's behalf.").

The Conservatives still think it's all to do with presentation. It's partly true. But first you need something to present. Until that's sorted out fully and thoroughly, their leader will not be heard in Parliament.