The Sketch: Howard comes out swinging and lands a punch or two

In the middle of the blazing matrix at the end of the House of Lords two empty thrones face us all. The matrix is a great, golden setting freighted with strange symbols of the state, the nation, and what used to be known as our glorious island history. There's God, a rearing lion, a horned mutant horse, clerics, columns, the Jonny Wilkinson flag, and a transcendental sense of power, possibly extra-terrestrial in origin. What a setting it is!

A distant trumpet sounds and everyone goes quiet. Soldiers quiver. A pack of courtiers dressed as court cards come in holding white wands, no one knows why. The Queen, the last great alien in this modernised age, comes in and sits down with her wicked-looking consort. The last Lord Chancellor does the thing the Lord Chancellor does, and does it for the last time before backing away, in the approved manner.

Then for quite a long time nothing happens at all. The dignified parts of the constitution look at us and we look at them. We are waiting for the democrats, the undignified parts of the constitution to arrive. The process takes far longer than it needs to. The whole occasion is magnificently unmodernised. The more one sees of the Government in action, the more one sees the worth of the irrational conservatism of these institutions. They change so slowly they don't seem to change at all. As Paul Flynn has said - and this must find its way into all dictionaries of quotations: "Under New Labour, only the future is certain; the past keeps changing."

Back in the Commons they sat on their undignified parts to witness the opening salvoes of the parliamentary year. Michael Howard continues to ignore the advice of this column. He did so well that he will feel justified in his chosen strategy. It is a very serious error. It is the long way round, and he doesn't have time to complete the journey.

The Conservatives' starting point is that the Government has achieved nothing. We all know this is untrue. Even I struggle; even I occasionally feel my refrain "rigged statistics" wearing thin. The Government has a number of achievements to its credit, and if Mr Howard wants us to subscribe to his subsequent arguments he has to start off saying something we all know to be true.

None the less, his denunciation of the asylum policy based on banging up asylum-seekers' children was brutally effective. His attack on Peter Mandelson "coming back into No 10 through the back door" - too daring a phrase, in my view - certainly cowed Mr Blair's rebellious backbench into a sullen silence. And his intervention on the Prime Minister was, in parliamentary terms, devastating. Mr Blair had described the Tories' policy for health passports as "iniquitous" and designed to allow "the few" to buy operations that "the many" can't afford.

Mr Howard asked at the dispatch box, voice trembling slightly with indignation: "If he affects such anger how can he condone the fact that the number of people without any health insurance who elected to buy an operation has tripled under his government from 100,000 a year to 300,000?"

Mr Blair started blathering. Or was it blithering? "There he sits, stands, and says the National Health Service is failing people in this country. And it's simply not true!"

The ominous silence opened up behind the Prime Minister. On this evidence it's going to be a far from quiet year.

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