The Sketch: God say when PM speak, it high point of week. What he really say, I pray?

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The Independent Online

There was an interesting digest of the New Testament carried into the interior by the first Aborigine convert. It went:

"God, men say, when die go fly

In sky with eagle hawk and

crow.

God, men say, when die

go fly through Pearly Gates

Where river flow.

Maybe, maybe. I don't know."

Your Sketch feels like that Aboriginal missionary. Keen as we both are to get the good news out, we both lack a visceral belief in what the Good Book – or in this case the Government Red Book – says.

Iain Duncan Smith asked again why there were now more managers than beds in the health service. Mr Blair replied they had increased the number of beds. Maybe that's true. Maybe, maybe. But it was no reason to bring it into the conversation.

Then he added: "And I totally disagree that good management isn't important." Why did he say that? IDS pointed to the Office of National Statistics report that had shown public spending on health (I won't say investment, I won't!) had gone up 25 per cent but half of the money hadn't given rise to any improvement. It's a fact that crucially undermines the Government's spending plans, and the best that can be said for Mr Duncan Smith is that he didn't make a complete bog of it.

Mr Blair said the report only went up to 1999 and didn't take improvements into account. Now, he told the House, all the indicators were going the right way. Only two people now waiting for an operation for longer than 15 months for instance.

Maybe, maybe. I don't know.

Nor did the Liberal Democrat David Chidgey. He didn't know either. He asked what to say to the dozens of his constituents who had approached him saying that if there were only two people in the country waiting longer than 15 months for an operation they were one of them.

Mr Blair said that precisely the same way of compiling waiting lists was used now as always. And 75 per cent of operations were done within three months. Maybe, maybe. Do you know?

Mr Duncan Smith made another good point. He does this occasionally; it's not clear why. Last year, he said, the Prime Minister had undertaken to cut benefits for those involved in criminal behaviour. Just as he was suggesting now. So, "How many criminals had their benefits cut?" he asked. The Prime Minister didn't know. "Thirty nine!" was the answer. Forty thousand beneficiaries had failed to comply with governmental instructions and just 39 had their benefit docked. "It was just another gimmick, wasn't it?" The Prime Minister denied it and rattled off a list of his eye-catching initiatives. The Conservatives were just exploiting the crime situation, he said, while he was dealing with it.

Maybe. I don't know. Who does? Bob Marshall Andrews, impresario of Old Labour's Old Testament prophets, asked Mr Blair to give his opinion of the modernisation of the select committees. A vote had been taken the night before. Robin Cook's proposal to remove the power of appointment to these committees from the party whips was narrowly defeated. It was a free vote, the PM said.

Not true. The sergeant's mess of the Labour whips' office had engaged in a decisive campaign of freelance whipping, and the motion was defeated by a handful of votes. Mr Blair insisted the vote was free.

Maybe? Maybe? No, I think we know.

SimonCarr75@hotmail.com

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