The Sketch: Simon Carr

Duncan Smith, minus the growl and scowl, lands a telling blow on Blair
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The Independent Online

For the first time in his leadership, Iain Duncan Smith pulled it off. Maybe he'll be able to get it back on. The Prime Minister was on the back foot (not his better foot); the mob of yobs, slobs, blobs and gob-jobs that constitute the government claque was strangely out of sorts. And the news from the world outside Westminster was shattering for a Government committed to the delivery of public services.

The scene was set.

The National Audit Office had investigated the mechanics of hospital waiting lists and uncovered a scandal. Under pressure from the Government, the Mr Duncan Smith put it to the Prime Minister, hospital administrators had waited until potential patients went away on holiday and then offered them an operation slot.

"This was a major breach of public trust!" he declared.

And because he didn't growl it, or scowl it, or accompany it with one his gruesome rhetorical flourishes, the Government claque did something very odd. Which was nothing. Normally they roar at this sort of thing. They bellow. They wave and jeer. They pick up his tone and amplify it in a bestial feedback system – this continues until it is impossible to hear what is being said.

So Iain Duncan Smith achieved his first parliamentary victory by creating the mood of the House. It was factual information that shut them up on the Government back benches. He cowed them. They were unable to jeer him down.

Only 4,000 or 5,000 places were misallocated, the Prime Minister claimed; yes, but only nine hospitals were investigated, IDS rebutted. There was a hush at that. Yes, and each hospital had their own rules. It appeared one had sent out a letter saying "we will contact you in 93 weeks". There was a deeper silence at that. Ninety-three weeks!

Here's the rule for a successful Tory attack on Tony Blair: no raised voice. No growling. No overt aggression, even. People seem to like Tony Blair (look at the polls). Attacking him attacks the electorate. So just show us the scandal; allow the audience the luxury of indignation. The artist prepares a cup for others to drink from, he doesn't slobber it off himself.

In a revealing exchange, the Prime Minister confirmed that he would sack Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport. You don't often hear such things announced in Parliament. Mr Duncan Smith winkled it out of him by asking: "Will he say, as reported in The Sun [laughter, cheers] whether, early in the new year, he will sack his Transport minister?"

And the Prime Minister indicated that he would do exactly that. He expressed it by saying "No" and then proceeding quickly to talk about Railtrack.

Linguistic analysis shows the Prime Minister at his most subtle. "No, I will not say whether I will sack my Transport minister," he was saying. That only means one thing, and we all know what.

Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of The Sun, has a constitutional position slightly below that of the Prime Minister and slightly above the Queen. It would be a grave threat to parliamentary convention if Tony Blair were to contradict, either by word or action, anything said by him. So Mr Byers is to be sacked. Perhaps they'll make him Chancellor.