The Sketch: Prescott once said: 'I'll die in a ditch for Blair.' Is it time now?

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The Independent Online

The fat pivot around which the Government now revolves sat beside the Prime Minister, filling two spaces. His manner was solemn. Grave. Maybe even graveside. John Prescott once offered to die in a ditch for Tony Blair. Here he now is looking directly into the ditch and wondering if it isn't too muddy, too watery, too cold and lonely a place to end his political career.

The fat pivot around which the Government now revolves sat beside the Prime Minister, filling two spaces. His manner was solemn. Grave. Maybe even graveside. John Prescott once offered to die in a ditch for Tony Blair. Here he now is looking directly into the ditch and wondering if it isn't too muddy, too watery, too cold and lonely a place to end his political career.

Here follow a number of signs that the prime ministerial position is weakening.

* He read out his answers to the Red Cross questions. He reads only when he has to keep to the official version in every last syllable, when he knows a single misplaced emphasis can scupper him.

* His backbenchers failed to back him. But why do they think they're called backbenchers? The patsy questions planted by the whips were greeted with a sour silence. Helen Liddell's diplomatic - almost ambassadorial - question was greeted with contempt.

* Before PMQs started, Jack Straw chattered vivaciously to his new best friend, and Gordon Brown chattered back. This new political mutant needs close observation. Even when - especially when - the Prime Minister answered questions, they nattered. When Charles Kennedy rose to speak, they fell into a respectful silence.

* Michael Howard made him answer a question.

That is so unlikely it needs recording. Speaking very quietly, and imposing a studious silence on the House, Mr Howard asked the Prime Minister: "When did he see the report?" Mr Blair stood. In happier days he would have offered seven different sorts of bluster, six obfuscation, five elisions, four misleading propositions, three evasions, two misinterpretations and a lie. Instead he said: "On Monday." As we know, the Red Cross report has been around for a long time, detailing some terrible things. Anyone of any consequence denies having seen it before the weekend, especially Mr Blair.

Mr Howard asked, again with an awful quietness, whether the Prime Minister could explain why he hadn't seen the report for three months. And not only the PM. The Armed Forces minister, the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary - all should have seen it, Mr Howard said, but they didn't.

There is one answer - they didn't see it because they knew what was in it.

Labour's Jon Jones told the House that when we had last invaded Mesopotamia it took us 44 years to get out. We made mistakes, he said, but they were our mistakes. "To what degree," he asked, "do we now retain any capacity for independent action?" There's only one answer to that. "I resign!" So Mr Blair declined to say anything.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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