The Sketch: Howard just doesn't get it. Labour rebels fall into line if Blair is given an old-style pasting

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The Independent Online

The Labour rebels are a consistently disappointing lot. They sense exactly the point at which they could do real damage then take one decisive step back from it. None the less, Michael Howard could have helped. He landed one of his big hits on the Prime Minister at question time yesterday. Those wretched big hits. Because this is politics, things have the opposite effect of what's intended.

Mr Howard wondered whether the Prime Minister was ashamed of his minister for Children (she's in a scandal we needn't go into). When the Government was thwarted, he went on, it resorted to bullying (cf Rose Addis: "racist". Martin Sixsmith: "something or other". Dr Kelly: "Walter Mitty").

This stung Mr Blair and prompted a spirited, surprisingly spirited, counter-attack, on the subject of child poverty.

And what happened? It is predictable. If only because it always happens: the Labour back bench rallied. When Mr Blair is attacked his people rally. When he is praised - for entertaining George Bush, for going to war - half his people press themselves into their benches hoping to be absorbed into the leather.

Had Mr Howard left Labour with the sense that they belonged to a party collaborating with the military-industrial complex they'd spent their youth fighting, a dozen crucial votes might have gone the other way and the Bill to establish foundation hospitals would have been defeated.

But there we were. It was a delicious mix of high and low politics, liberating hospitals from Stalinist control systems on the one hand, and inflicting a painful blow on Tony Blair on the other. Hmmm. Cancer survival rates versus an embarrassed Prime Minister; it's a tough choice for politicians on all sides of the House.

In the event, everyone deserved a prize, especially Stephen McCabe for the most insulting speech of the year. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, mixed his high and low with great aplomb. The Tories were opposing the Bill to establish foundation hospitals "because they were frightened of the political consequences of an improved NHS". And, he delivered a particularly base peroration: "If anyone on this side of the House is thinking of voting against the Government look at the people sitting opposite." How low can you go? Mr Reid's newly discovered talent for limbo dancing will take him far.

David Hinchliffe, Labour chairman of the health select committee, said there had been no consultation on the subject, no Green Paper, no White Paper, and indeed, the voice (and vote) of the Labour conference were directly hostile. Mr Reid reassured the House. They were "about to engage in the biggest consultation exercise ever undertaken in this country."

The First Way is to consult, the Second Way is not to consult, the Third Way is to take the decision and then consult. And then forget to consult (vide: euro roadshow).

Tim Yeo's career has suddenly taken off after a mysterious period of decline, Ken Clarke's in the opposite situation. They both did as well as each other (that is, very well). As did Kate Hoey, Gordon Prentice and (no, really) Paul Burstow. But no one did well enough.