The Sketch: Prime Minister has gone from Flashman to earnest penitent

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The Independent Online

Recalling Parliament was a bold, unusual, exciting thing to do. If only we hadn't had to turn up it would have been perfect.

Our holidays were delayed by a double dose of phone hacking – an endless statement was followed by an endless debate (which may still be going on when we get back in September).

The questions and answers have been honed to perfection but occasionally new charges arise. Tom Watson said he sent a letter to Cameron last year with specific information about hacking; Nick Raynsford made dark reference to the Cabinet Secretary being alerted last year to the hacking of a senior figure in the government service; and time and again, Cameron refused to name the company that vetted Coulson.

For his part, the Prime Minister told us that Alastair Campbell falsified documents when he was in government. And when in need of a cheer he mentioned the "despicable behaviour" of some of Labour's communications crew in recent times.

"There is only one party leader with a News International executive sitting in his office with a cloud over his head," he said.

"No more cheap partisanship," Louise Mensch demanded and then went immediately on to name Tom Baldwin and Damien McBride.

Ed Miliband occasionally tried a cross-party tone. "The reason we didn't speak out was because News International was too powerful." More precisely, they didn't speak out because they were afraid of offending a News International executive at a party.

Nonetheless, Ed Miliband had a good day. He was challenged again about Baldwin and the allegations of blagging bank accounts under Lord Ashcroft's control. EDM said he had believed the assurances given by The Times about Baldwin's good character because they were issued by his line manager – Michael Gove, now the Secretary for Education. That carefully worded remark got a good laugh.

Whether the modest increase in popularity takes Miliband beyond his net negative rating of -16 remains to be seen. There are presentational issues outstanding.

The face is still producing the output of three or four ordinary faces; spasms of excitement can make it turn inside out. He leans forward on the bench pushing annoying expressions into the chamber, very like the clever boy in the class who needs a bit more bullying to make a man of him.

But we can't look to the Prime Minister for that. The Flashman approach has failed. Cameron is now an earnest penitent, forced to penance by the pieties of his young opponents. In life as in art. Remember, in the book, Flashman was actually bested by his two young victims in a climactic fight.