The Sketch: When Tony gets passionate, it's time to take cover

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The Independent Online

The Speaker's reputation has done well recently. Too well in my view. He's credited with "hauling a reluctant Prime Minister into the House" to make a statement on the recent reshuffle. Surely, he had only to grant an Urgent Question to the Tories on Monday and it would have settled more promptly.

None the less, it is a pleasure to report the old coot has secured both the respect and the affection of the House. He also keeps better order than his deputy could yesterday. The Labour back benches behaved disgracefully, and I don't mean that in a good way. Sir Alan Haselhurst appealed to their better nature so, of course, the appeal went unheard.

Mr Thing, buoyed perhaps by a slight lift in the polls, did all right, but there's still a long way to go (Pluto, technically) before he does well enough. He remarked on the fact that the part-time minister for Scotland was also the part-time minister of transport. At a time when a fifth of the trains were running late, services were being cut and fares were going up - was this a suitable state of affairs? The Prime Minister, day-dreaming perhaps, replied that, since the Hatfield accident, the state of the railways had been found to be worse than imagined and that was why they were putting so much money into them.

It's always shocking to experience the Prime Minister's shiftiness, he's got such a frank and open manner. Charles Kennedy asked him whether charges laid by Clare Short and Robin Cook were correct. MI6 had told the Cabinet, apparently, that Iraq possessed no WMD. Tony Blair replied that the issue wasn't whether Iraq could launch an immediate strike but that Saddam posed a threat to the region. This puts into context his passionate advocacy, when he presented the 45-minute threat Saddam posed. When we hear the same passion for, say, public service reform we must remember what the Prime Minister's passion means. That he wants us to know he is passionate, usually.

Mr Thing returned with a serviceable attack on regional referendums. He said that 42 million people were consulted and just 4,000 said they wanted a referendum for a regional assembly, so the Government was going to give them one. "When 1.7 million say they want a referendum on the European constitution, they are denied one." He also quoted Blair from happier days. "When we make a promise we must be sure we can keep it." Mr Thing was less successful responding to Mr Blair's statement on the reshuffle. Too long, too boring, and allowed Mr Blair to present his argument as: "Fighting for a man wearing a full bottomed wig, 18th-century breeches and women's tights, sitting on a woolsack instead of running the courts. That says more about the Conservative Party than it says about us." Yes, full bottomed men in women's tights ought to tell us something about the Conservative Party, if tradition means as much as they say it does.