The Sketch: Tory hounds losing the taste for blood

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The Independent Online

Why is the fox-hunting ban taking two years to come into force? To allow the "industry" time to come to terms with "the business consequences" of the ban, so Peter Hain said in Business Questions yesterday. It would be hard to find a stupider way of putting it, so there was the additional pleasure of hearing the Leader of the House denying he was "ignorant of rural issues". He wants two years to "rehome" the hounds.

But you can't rehome hounds, not once they've got a taste of blood, Alan Milburn has taught us that. No, you can take a hound (or Alan Milburn) away from the kennels and put him in a nice, comfortable home with all creature comforts such as a carpet and soft bed, but he never really settles. He will always miss the life of the pack. It's in the blood. He will always long for the chase. He has to have howling. And, in Mr Milburn's case, he will always be looking for the opportunity to mark out the alpha dog in the pack (or in this case, the alpha's main rival) and kill it. Gordon Brown knows this, it's one of the advantages of a paranoid personality.

So it's all a great opportunity for the Tories, but they're too mean to be able to make use of it. They should be welcoming the return of Blair's heir. They should be doing so genuinely. He will help to divide the Labour Party entirely to their advantage. They should be cheering him on and celebrating his contracts with private health providers if only to watch the Labour back bench fall apart like a cleft apple.

But no, they snipe and sneer and jeer as if auditioning to be a sketch writer. Fools! As David Winnick said about hunting, "If the Tories are so angry about this we must be doing something right." The converse is more instructive. "If the Tories are happy about it we must be doing something wrong."

Education questions continues its uninterrupted reign as the most depressing 40 minutes of the month. At least Margaret Hodge only answered one question (she said she didn't know). But that Ivan character, whatever his name is, stood there either reading his supplementary answers out as if addressing the sixth form, or giving us rubbishy rhetorical tropes as if auditioning for some provincial council. Yes, pack animals sound so much the same after you've heard one of them.

Tim Collins, the shadow Education Minister, excelled himself in a passionate commitment to returning the Tory party to government. He didn't turn up at all. He had announced a new education policy the day before, but in his own kitchen and the cat walked out halfway through the presentation.

Charles Clarke stated that Collins' new proposals would cost students £60,000 to pay back a £10,000 loan. That's the charge. How long will it take for the Tory machine to rebut that? If they've sharply improved their performance, I'd say November.