The Sketch: PM gets a working over, so he simply recreates himself

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The Independent Online

Balzac used to marvel at the recreational talent of certain women. They were professionals who allowed themselves to be used in the darkness, but then were able to recreate themselves as fresh as a morning newspaper by sunrise. Our Prime Minister is like that. He recreates himself overnight. You may have noticed he's been worked over pretty thoroughly recently (there was the Prescott-related incident, the Brown-related incident, the Cameron-related incident and various fiascos over the Brussels budget, the smoking ban, the eviscerated schools Bill, the 90-day defeat, the welfare retreat, the ... but let's not go on, it's Christmas).

Yesterday, he appeared before the stern and unforgiving press corps. He was nimble, amusing, modest, playful - in a word, charming. Unashamed, undamaged, he was fresh, he was new. "I feel more confident than I ever have," he said. And he explained why. He did so in a way that the Tories should attend to; he's drawing them a very clear diagram about the single chink in his armour.

He is sublimely unconcerned, he suggests, "because there is no big idea" to challenge New Labour either from the left or right. Is his party going to vacate the ground which has given them three election victories? Er, no. Prescott was joking, you see, about class war. Do the Tories have any ideas of their own? They are trying to catch up with New Labour ideas (and lagging, let it be said). And of course, there is the matter of the polls, which show Gordon Brown to be an electoral liability as party leader. Mr Blair modestly refrained from drawing attention to this. But there is one area on which Labour is vulnerable, he says, now that the money has gone into public services. "It's the idea we're more interested in the state than the people. We have to show that we stand up for ... the state beside people, not on top of them. That's the one argument we have to be careful of."

The Conservatives need to take this point very seriously. It's much later than they think. Cameron's performance over the EU rebate is deteriorating as time goes by. He had no answer to the Prime Minister's arguments on the costs of enlargement (blushing doesn't count).

Does the Tory high command have an answer to the question of selection in schools? I mean an answer that Conservatives would recognise and that lapsed Conservatives won't find repulsive? And is it an answer that splices into this central weakness of the Government, that they're more interested in the state than in society?

I'll eat my boater, if they have.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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