The Sketch: Poisonous praise is Howard's only hope for making the devils hiss

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It took Tony Blair three years to get the hang of William Hague, then three minutes for the next fellow. Now he is closing in on Michael Howard. There will be many different reactions to the assertion, but we are witnessing the return of the Prime Minister's supremacy in Parliament. He is simply going to out-argue his opposition: it's briefcases at dawn.

It took Tony Blair three years to get the hang of William Hague, then three minutes for the next fellow. Now he is closing in on Michael Howard. There will be many different reactions to the assertion, but we are witnessing the return of the Prime Minister's supremacy in Parliament. He is simply going to out-argue his opposition: it's briefcases at dawn.

Mr Blair is going to trash the Tories' attractive ideas on health and education right there in front of our eyes. This is the more impressive as the Tory ideas were so attractive he's adopted many of them for his own. He has become so expert in argumentative deception that he can tear Tory proposals to pieces even while proposing them himself.

Despite his fabled forensic skills, Michael Howard has but a slim chance of getting out of the debate alive. He's clever but he's not supple enough. He'll need shorter, simpler statements, and many more of them. He badly needs that new rhetorical stance, the one based on poisonous praise. Mr Howard must praise the Prime Minister for the Conservative elements in his policies, if only to watch the Labour back benches hiss like demons sprinkled with holy water. If he ignores this advice he'll be buried under a 110-seat majority after the next election.

The Prime Minister floored his opponent with two remarks yesterday. First: "He is saying schools will be free to run their own admissions policy. That is not parents choosing schools, that is schools choosing parents!" Second: "Where his ideas are coherent they are reactionary and divisive; where they are not reactionary and divisive they are completely incoherent."

Whether or not these points were accurate or fairly made is arguable, but their force was obvious to all. Mr Howard should be putting out instant rebuttals of these points.

What else? The women who attended PMQs in hats may remind Peter Hain of progress made. Hats in the House used to be forbidden except for members wishing to make a point of order in a division. Then, until very recently, a hat was compulsory.

They all used an old-fashioned opera hat, flat until punched up. MPs used to sling it around the chamber like a Frisbee. Some progressive members refused to wear it; they modernised by placing an order paper on their head.

Finally, back to European Standing Committee B, where we scrutinised the EU draft budget in an hour and 20 minutes. One Tory attended. Because he isn't a committee member, George Osborne was unable to vote against it.

He made the point that whatever the committee thought, the deal would done by the Prime Minister in some smoke-free room in some EU conference.

"We have to struggle to pretend we are scrutinising it," he said. That was true. The absent Tory committee members must have struggled even harder.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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