The Sketch: The Tories do like to attack their own, even when it's Tony Blair

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The Independent Online

For the last five years they've attacked an increasingly Tory Prime Minister. They like to attack their own, but they take it too far. Tony Blair is so deft and fleet they can't land a punch on him, and their unremitting abuse has made them sound negative, unpleasant, mean-spirited, monotonous and wrong.

Yesterday at PMQs we had a glimpse of how it might have been otherwise. A glimpse, at least, it's better than nothing.

He hushed the Labour beast (it was baying absent-mindedly at him) by using the word "earthquake". He went on to describe it elegantly as "a British disaster too".

He used the white-commonwealth term "kith and kin" which sounded gently inclusive. He moved on to public services and quoted the conference speech, the bit about the PM wishing he'd gone further with reform. Mr Howard's question was: "Who stopped him?"

Oh, the noise. The expression on Gordon Brown's face. Mr Blair stepped up to the mark, smiling in his mischievous way: "It is always important with any reform we test it carefully." Mr Howard came back with a taunt: "The name! I'll give him a clue. It has two words, three syllables! He has also said, 'the user of public services isn't sovereign' - who is it?" Mr Blair just chuckled away, sportingly, and answered evenly, waiting for Mr Howard to fail the test. Which he promptly did.

"Two questions and none answered," Mr Howard said, and the sympathy he had generated started drifting off. It's such a loser's complaint. Tony Blair doesn't answer questions? That's no way to say goodbye. Whatever he then asked, prompted the Prime Minister to go off into a long recital of achievements.

"Isn't the real tragedy of the Prime Minister that he hasn't engaged in real reform when he had the authority to do so? He was timid. Now he's just weak!" Ohh! Unfair! Unpleasant! And look who's talking! But the Prime Minister had been stung: it was the Tory barracking on behalf of the private sector. And therein lay the glimpse.

When the PM claims progress in the reformed services, the Tories should agree and cheer - because usually they can lay the credit at the feet of the private sector.

Tory approval is so toxic even the public shy away from policies they want but know to be Tory. The Labour backbench is like that but observably more so. Tory approval, Tory cheers, the Tory embrace ("One of us! One of us! ") would destroy the Prime Minister's standing in his party before Christmas.

I wonder if they noticed? And if they did, whether they'll do anything about it. Old habits, and all that.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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