The Sketch: There is a sadistic pleasure in watching the Prime Minister squirm

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Mr Howard continues his rhetorical strategy of blind, contemptuous, implacable opposition to Mr Blair in open defiance of the Sketch's instructions. It's hard to know why he's doing so well. And he is doing surprisingly well.

His party's poll rating has jumped. The public sees him as a credible prime minister. He is frightening the Labour back bench. He looms over the dispatch box, pale with anger and concentrated venom, like one of the leaders of the Inquisition.

His nose for error, for heresy, for sin is very developed and he follows his inquisitorial instincts without mercy or generosity. It requires a certain temperament to enjoy Torquemada Howard in action, but there are those of us who have discovered a shameful and probably sadistic pleasure in watching the the Prime Minister squirm.

The Opposition leader's final question, mocking the Big Conversation, was the most damaging, not even looking for an answer.

"Doesn't the Prime Minister realise how ridiculous he's becoming?" he said.

The terrible silence on the Labour back benches gathered in strength and texture to become an entity in its own right. That humiliating absence of support signifies the real danger for Mr Blair, and now everyone knows it.

Truth to tell, the Inquisitor had the Prime Minister running in circles. His first question on top-up fees, Mr Blair didn't answer. To the next question on foundation hospitals Mr Blair answered on top-up fees.

Then Mr Howard asked a question on the European constitution to which Mr Blair responded, to many jeers, with a homily on foundation hospitals. "If this is what a small conversation with the Prime Minister sounds like, it doesn't bode well for the Big Conversation," Mr Howard said, neatly.

"If the Prime Minister won't listen to people, why should people listen to him?" Mr Blair hasn't had a worse day in the House. He has never been patronised by the opposition and treated with such sullen hostility by his own side.

Mr Howard goaded him. "THIS grammar school boy," he was referring to himself, "will take no lessons from THAT public school boy on access to higher education!" he said. The Tories roared as though back in Big School. Labour cringed.

Mr Blair pulled out a very decent reply. "A lot of people didn't go to either public school or grammar school, and what about them?" he said.

And that's when the silence started to become obvious. His back bench now doubts the essence of Blairism. Is it really about "the many, not the few"? Is it not about the very, very few? Maybe, they think, it's just about Mr Blair? If it is, they think in a prime ministerial phrase, then make it so.

Mr Blair was flailing. At one point he said: "I'm the only one who wants to discuss the arguments," and it sounded weak, weak, weak.

He has defeated three of his Tory opponents in Parliament by keeping ahead of them. John Major, William Hague and, um ... or was it two of his opponents? He worked out how they operated and then circumvented them. Now the boot is on the other foot; the screws are on the other thumb.