The Sketch: It's not too late for the right question

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The Independent Online

One of the Conservative Party's distinguished leaders was in the Oxford Union the other day slagging off PMQs. "Useless, pointless, stupid," was his description.

Every portrait is a self-portrait, you say? You may be right. But that's not to say he's wrong. Take Charles Kennedy. He rounded up a selection of discreditable facts and put them to the Prime Minister. Seven years ago, the Child Support Agency was an "urgent priority" for the PM. Since then, 35,000 cases of maladministration have built up, there's a backlog of 350,000 cases and nearly £2bn in unpaid maintenance is owing. Is that a disgrace, or what?

Mr Kennedy had laid the facts out strongly. But the Prime Minister chose one of his stock responses and shrugged himself into a prepared script, beginning: "What is actually important here is...." Or was it: "What I do think is a good idea is ..."? Or perhaps: "Let's look at the opposition's record on this...."

He uses them every week. So, Iain Duncan Smith's implicit question (does any of this really "hold the Government to account"?) is a good one. Unfortunately, the answer isn't helpful (it's "No"). More cheerfully, Michael Howard is finding a use for the occasion. Being conservative, he doesn't change easily but he is getting the hang of Wednesdays. Yesterday, he came up with the most successful line of his leadership. He began by offering matey advice on the grounds that "we're both of us on the way out." Any community of interest is like the wrong-coloured kryptonite for our super-hero Prime Minister.

Then he developed their new relationship. He said that the PM shouldn't spend his time attacking people who agree with him on educational reform (ie, the Toxic Tories), rather those who violently oppose him (the Holy Fools on his own back bench). This got a huge cheer from his own side. The noise was, however, less conspicuous than the silence from Labour.

So it's progress, and it isn't too late to go further. Mr Howard should be spending a third of his questions attacking the PM's backbench attackers. "They're wrong, Prime Minister! You know they're wrong! We know they're wrong! And if we die in a ditch together we'll share a Tory epitaph: You and I! Brothers! Comrades!"

Other news in brief: Geoffrey Clifton-Brown put up a Bill to remove very poor people from income tax. Previous Tories had removed eight million lowest earners; Labour had brought six million of them back. GCB is proposing a very deft way to pitch tax cuts to a sceptical electorate.