The Sketch: Is this a new Tory era - or a new Tory error?

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The Independent Online

So, farewell then, Mr T. He got the warmest laugh of his leadership when he stood up to the dispatch box for the final time saying: "I've asked this question 18 times, and a fat lot of good it's done me." Two years ago, William Hague said almost exactly the same thing in exactly the same circumstances, and got almost exactly the same laugh. It's an indication of the rhetorical progress the Tories have made over the period.

Is this the dawn of a new era or dawn of a new error for the Conservatives? Tony Blair has mastered the Commons so absolutely he looks like the benign chairman of an unruly committee. He doesn't have to exert himself. He strolls, he smiles, he makes small jokes. He hangs around his baseline knocking back the balls as if it were purely for practice.

Both previous opposition leaders have attacked him in terms ranging from the mocking to the virulent and "a fat lot of good" it did either of them. They have denounced him week after week, year after year for his astonishing failures in public service reform, and he has made one reply: the situation could hardly be improved by 20 per cent cuts across the board.

The real problem in attacking the Prime Minister, however, is deeper than this. The real problem with the Prime Minister is that he is so likeable. That's a technical term, by the way. A small example: at yesterday's questions, he preceded his first answer to his opposite number with the words: "I'd just like to say to the honourable gentleman that whatever our differences, and we've had a few, I wish him well."

Just when we were admiring the defeated leader for behaving so well, suddenly we were admiring the Prime Minister for the casual grace of his gesture.

The Prime Minister understands better than anyone one of the profoundest rules in politics: Friends are more dangerous than enemies. Let us take this seriously. To damage Mr Blair one has to approach him in a friendly attitude. It's the only way of getting close enough to wound him. When opposition leaders attack, his back bench rallies to him. When opposition members praise him, the Labour back bench coils venomously around itself like a bagful of adders and visibly squeeze their poison sacs.

So Mr Howard's goodwill, his cool handshake, his encircling arm will be very much more dangerous to Mr Blair than abuse, indignation and assault. The sub-vocal content of 80 per cent of his utterance should be: "And so you see, honourable members, he was one of us all the time!" And the Tory back benches can whisper threateningly: "One of us! One of us!"

I would say it is just possible a sincere display of respect, admiration and co-operative effort to introduce, inter alia, foundation hospitals could see Mr Blair out of office before the next election. It is equally possible that Mr Brown couldn't win an election under his own name (too boring).

By a simple rhetorical strategy, Michael Howard could drive a stake straight into the heart of New Labour and split it in two.