The Sketch: The laughter seemed to last a decade... and Ming aged 10 years

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The Independent Online

Sorry about that; where were we? The Ming Dynasty began yesterday at PMQs when the Liberals' leadership stand-in stood in for the fallen leader. Because of the rule against kicking Teletubbies when they're down I can't tell you anything about Charles Kennedy. But Ming Campbell was well worth the price of admission. He goes under a variety of satirical nicknames, none of which he deserves. He is a gent from his well-polished shoes to his well-polished head. An Olympic athlete who recently defeated a life-threatening cancer and who organised the Liberals' most successful political position to date (Iraq). His critics suggest he needs to develop expertise in the domestic agenda, particularly in education. So far, this is limited to a facial resemblance to Chalky, the cadaverous teacher from the Giles cartoons. It may not be enough.

He rose to extended cheers, some of which must have been genuine. Poised, urbane, capable, he said, to affectionate laughter: "And a very happy New Year to you too." He then asked why the Prime Minister was making such a mess of public service reform (we had learnt in the morning media that a million children are being educated to the level of intelligent dolphins). The Prime Minister swept away the question in a rush of statistical slurry (the number of "failing schools" has halved, the number of "good leaders and managers" has increased by half, the number of naked, barking, grime-caked children eating dogs for dinner has decreased by 17 per cent). Then Sir Ming said: "Why do one in five schools not have a permanent headteacher when..." It took the length of that word "when" for the House to apply the question to the questioner. Oh, the laughter (little of it, so very little of it, kind laughter) seemed to go on for a decade, and certainly Sir Ming aged 10 years before it ended. The Prime Minister gently replied, "It can sometimes be difficult to find the head of an organisation, particularly if it's a failing organisation."

More laughter, more cheers, more parliamentary mastery by the Prime Minister.

An entirely new mood has entered Prime Minister's Questions; it has been created by David Cameron but is abetted vigorously by the PM. Cameron is quiet, sincere, thoughtful, a little throaty. Tony Blair is a little quieter, a little more thoughtful, throatier.

Tony Blair accepted entirely the fundamentals of Thatcherism in order to transcend it. In an attempt to do the same thing, David Cameron has accepted entirely the fundamentals of Blairism (hence the thoughtfulness, throatiness etc). The troubles are twofold. Blair will always be better at Blairism than anyone else. And second, the new-look, new-leader, new-team Tory party is still very far from being five or 10 points ahead in the polls. Still, it is all extremely watchable.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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