The Sketch: Mr Thing outfoxed by Blair's blandness

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The Independent Online

One of the achievements of Tony Blair, the Great Commoner, is to make the Conservatives look so weird. Of course, this is easier with some of them than others.

Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, has a very secure reputation for being weird. He's also wholly unsuited to the business of being popular. I quite like him, obviously. He's got a sort of hunched, Witchfinder General manner impressive even by the standards of the 17th century.

And be happy for him: Mr Lewis had a great moment. Tony Blair had been asked by a colleague why the Allied forces hadn't secured the Iraqi ministries with all their vital records when Baghdad had been captured? The Prime Minister assured the House he was urgently looking at how we could redouble our efforts in this regard.

Many of us had fallen into a narcoleptic trance at the start of his familiar piffle. The Prime Minister is always redoubling his efforts. Everything is always the most urgent priority. So many of us failed to notice how inadequate the answer was.

Mr Lewis's strange, corkscrew voice pointed out in a question of several parts that 13 days after the fall of the city, the BBC was reporting ministries to be open to anyone who wished to walk into them. Why had there not been proper custody of any documents which might have established the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction and of links to al-Qa'ida?

This produced more piffle from the PM, but it was clearly piffle, and you could see he was rattled. That counts as a victory for the Opposition. The Prime Minister's manner is marvellous, he's a magician for mood creation; the matter, however, the substance, can be so bad as to defy description.

And so to Mr Thing. There are those who discerned an improvement in the Tory leader's performance yesterday. This is true but useless. He has the mother and father of all Tory issues with which to belabour the Government. The European constitution. Whatever one's attitude to it, it does promise a massive transfer of power from nation states to a new, essentially federal, government. And most Britons don't much care for it. It's an open goal for the Tories.

Why, he asked, when we have had a referendum to determine whether we should have a mayor in Hartlepool, can we not have a referendum to determine the single most important constitutional event in our history since the Battle of Hastings?

Mr Blair blandly replied that this sort of thing was merely scare-mongering. The idea that we would yield up control of our defence or foreign policy was simply false. Mr Thing hadn't mentioned either of these examples. It was the moment of the open goal. The exhaustive list of the powers we are to hand over. With a tremendous swing of the boot, Mr Thing kicked himself fantastically hard in the head. There's no use going into it here.

Mr Blair follows the ancestral Europhile strategy of pretending that nothing very significant is happening. And Mr Thing is just not bright enough, not nimble enough, not forceful enough to prove the opposite is the case.