The Sketch: Grandpa, what has happened to Mr Blair?

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The Independent Online

Well that was the dullest Prime Minister's questions for a very long time. It couldn't have been more interesting. The Prime Minister's talent for being heard is disappearing daily. The force is no longer with him. His pot is cracked and his shining, sparkling virtue is dribbling away into the sand.

The Prime Minister still hasn't got the measure of the opposition leader, and nor have his back benches. Michael Howard stood up to a stertorous volley of jeers, sneers and scornful noises from the great cleft rump that is the Parliamentary Labour Party.

He relished it for a moment. He knew his first four words would put a cork in them. There must be satisfaction in that; it must feel like power, to know that four quiet words will compel the hostile attention of your rancorous opposition.

The jeering increased fractionally and he said: "British servicemen and women". And there it was: the delicious silence of a packed House of Commons, the best sort of silence there is, thrilling with inexpressible resentment.

With a calm calculated to infuriate, he asked the same question as he had last week. After the handover of power in Iraq, who would have responsibility for security, deployment of troops and for prisoners in custody?

Mr Blair began answering one way by saying the handover would be "complete" and that the Iraqis would have "full sovereignty". Then he started to say the opposite. You can always tell when the Prime Minister is about to contradict himself; he begins by saying: "It is the case, however..."

Apparently it is the case, however, that they are working out "the right degree of co-operation". Presumably Iraqis will have the freedom to do anything we want them to.

It sounds like Mr Blair's domestic policy of devolution in health and education. Maybe it will be as successful. And then we better start preparing for World War Three.

Mr Howard's second tranche of questions were based on the Transport Secretary's suggestion that petrol was too cheap and that Britons were to be "taxed out of their cars".

It made it very hard (in fact, too hard) for Mr Blair to rehearse his government's list of achievements. He did it anyway, but it sounded very odd. Like trying to get an old man off the subject of his war experiences.

"I wonder where all the sparrows have gone over the last 20 years, Grandpa?" And he says: "There are no birds at all at Verdun."

If that's what the Big Conversation was like it must have been very unsatisfactory.

Mr Blair's high note at the end was pretty uncertain and really very cracked. "We will not reintroduce the poll tax! And that's why the British people will support us!" he cried.

Then the session petered out in a series of planted questions about screening and child care and local housing and bedpans and "School Safety Patrol Crossing Officers". And then we all went home wondering (and not always kindly) what was happening to our Prime Minister.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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